Let’s Talk about the 2017 Oscars and All That Jazz

[flexes fingers] Ah. I should be working on my 7-page anthropology essay, but, last night’s Oscars was such a beautiful mess. I’m going to write about it here and I promise I won’t brag about it too much on Twitter or Instagram. Although I will never shut up about Moonlight, but, still….

I’ve been paying attention to the Oscars since the 2013 ceremony (the one with Argo winning Best Picture) and never have a host’s work been overshadowed by a mishap as embarrassing as this one; I’ve been waiting in anticipation when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, God bless them, got a tad confused by the name in the envelope. When La La Land won, I’ve already accepted the fact, yet a voice (of one of LLL’s producers, Jordan Horowitz, God bless him) shouted out a different winner. I felt really sorry for the cast and crew of both La La Land and Moonlight and for both Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. This mishap made audiences feel secondhand embarrassment for all of the people involved. I’m pretty sure there has been a lot of articles published on this fiasco and multiple analyses about what had actually happened, but I’m not here to talk too much in depth about that.

First off, let’s talk Trump politics (to brush it off first). I have to admit, this event isn’t as political as this year’s Golden Globes. Maybe it’s because of the lack of Trump-bashing Meryl Streep? Anyway, it is still a political event, though, because, in the Trump era, everything slightly political would be perceived very political in another era. Asghar Farhadi’s win for Best Foreign Language Film and his decision to skip the Oscars speaks volumes against Trump’s ban and conveys the idea of how this ban also affects the film industry at large. Gael Garcia Bernal took his opportunity as a presenter to speak out against the American-Mexican border wall plan while putting it in context with stating that film is an art form without borders. Jimmy Kimmel didn’t just spend his whole hosting tenure mocking Matt Damon – he mocked Trump too.

Also, since I’m a theatre student, I would like to talk about how theatre plays a pivotal role in this year’s Oscars. I am really proud on how theatre-originated films thrive in this year’s Oscars. Fences is adapted from an August Wilson play of the same name. Wilson, whom Viola Davis mentioned in her winning speech, is regarded as America’s Shakespeare and is known for his 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, exploring the lives of African Americans throughout the 20th century. The whole cast of Fences reprised their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – songwriters of La La Land – are Broadway songwriters and currently have a hit show playing on Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen, about a teenager helping out a family who lost theirs from a suicide. Moonlight is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, one of the resident artists of New York’s renowned Public Theatre (the theatre that birthed Hamilton) and the next chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. Kenneth Lonergan, the winner of Best Original Screenplay for Manchester by the Sea, has written a play on Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame is nominated, and Sara Bareilles of Waitress fame performed a song. And in a hilarious turn of events, Seth Rogen and Michael J. Fox performed The Schuyler Sisters from the musical Hamilton. What a time to be alive as a theatre student! Although the film industry has so much to learn from how progressive the theatre industry is, but I’m proud to see ~people of my kind~ up there.

Okay, now to the core of the article – the La La Land vs Moonlight debacle. This is something that has caused an uproar in social media and the news. So… let’s crack this out.

I think La La Land deserves the awards it got. It was a favorite for Best Picture, though… Despite all the backlash it got because it’s “too white”, La La Land is innovative by its own. It explores the notion of love without possession while paying homage to Hollywood’s own past. Its cinematography, especially the camerawork during the musical sequences, is indelible. And Damien Chazelle worked hard for this – he has to make Whiplash to finance this passion project of his. La La Land is originally slated for a summer release, where it has to compete with mega blockbusters such as Transformers, Independence Day, or the Jurassic Park franchise, yet he backed out from such risk and moved the release date to the Oscar season frame. Chazelle himself has tried to put in as many people of color as he can in the movie, praised Moonlight and is in good terms with Barry Jenkins, and gave a shout-out to Asghar Farhadi in one of his awards season speeches.

I expected that La La Land would win the Best Picture category because it is really close to the hearts of Academy voters. These voters are people who made it in the entertainment industry and are familiar with the story of Mia and Seb – two people who are trying to make it in the entertainment industry. Seems relatable? You bet. The Oscars has a long history praising films about artists (see The Artist and Birdman) because the story relates to the Oscar voters too much, or as Honest Trailers would call it, the Hollywood Hand-job.

But, why is Moonlight hailed as this year’s best film by the Academy voters? Moonlight is supposed to be the Oscars dark horse – the underrated indie film people got hyped up about instead. And these kinds of films would lose to the more mainstream film that is closer to the hearts of Oscar voters. In 2016 we had Room, in 2015 we had Whiplash, in 2014 we had Her, and in 2013 we had Beasts of the Southern Wild. And now, the film that’s supposed to fit that mold went to win the Best Picture accolade instead. Why is that so?

Once you’ve thought about it, this might have some sort of correlation with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy surrounding the ceremonies of the past two years. Just last year Cheryl Boone Isaacs actually paid attention to this issue; she added a significant number of Academy members encompassing women and people of color and made significant rule changes in Academy membership. In that way, Isaacs aimed for the Academy members to be more diverse. People might think that this move is not that significant for diversity in the film industry, but the victory of Moonlight proved otherwise.

Many have argued that Moonlight’s win indicated that the Oscars has turned into a heavily political ceremony – that it has preferred activism over merit in its voting. I would like to argue that the change in policy and membership might affect the way the Oscars are going to be. It is easy for specialized film industry workers to give awards based on merit to nominated specialized film industry workers; it is easy for actors well-versed in Stanislavsky or Adler or Meisner to judge a certain actor’s embodiment of a character in a film, and it is also easy for sound engineers having degrees in sound engineering to judge the soundscape of a certain movie. What’s hard is to determine a great film as a whole; it is hard to have a definite rational explanation on why does one like a certain movie so much. I mean, it’s easy to compare two films based on production value, but what if the films you have to judge has the same, stellar production value?

What’s left to judge is the soul of the movie – one’s emotional relatability to it. A film might strike as profound because the film blows you away and has proved itself to be a transcendental experience. This is clearly judged using how one’s soul would connect to a certain movie. And, yes, it is somewhat the director’s responsibility as well, but it’s a two-way street. The director has the responsibility to engage the audience and to make the film have power over you, but the audience has to have an emotional connection to the movie – something to make the movie and the audience click. A person who hasn’t experienced heartbreak would not respond to The Notebook the way a person with longing towards his/her partner would.

The same goes to both La La Land and Moonlight. La La Land is a story about ambition and dreams, and most of my peers feel that they relate more to that film since they have the ~past~ that clicks so much to that movie. Moonlight is a story about longing, self-discovery, repressed feelings, and societal standards. Although I am an ambitious person and share the same goals with Mia and Sebastian, I relate more to the struggles of Chiron facing what society expects of him and dealing with his longing and repressed feelings towards Kevin. Moonlight touched my heart more than La La Land did, and that is why Moonlight becomes my favorite movie of 2016. Many of my peers relate more to La La Land than Moonlight, and that’s okay; everyone has different experiences that might shape their opinions on the world.

Talking about different experiences, the deeply rooted racial and gender inequality in this world also takes part in constructing individual identities and histories. Although Thomas Jefferson would argue that all men are created equal, but according to society, we are not equal. We are all human, but the truth is that our experiences can differ because of our skin color. (That’s why the word for racial activism is equity, not equality.) With the addition of members of color into the Academy’s board, the Academy has added more perspective, more experiences, and more insight into the world of film – that we don’t just see a year’s films based on a white male lens, but from a diverse lens.

I mean, if they were just campaigning for diversity, why not pick the non-white film that conforms to the Oscar standard biopic, Hidden Figures? It’s a stellar feelgood film, though. There have been a plethora of films on non-white stories in this year’s Oscars, and all of them are released in the same period of time, so there’s a chance that this year’s Oscars victory for diversity could just be a coincidence. We can continue to speculate why Moonlight got the gold instead of La La Land, but I truly hope that it’s because of Cheryl Boone Isaacs’s new policies regarding diversity in the Academy members. And we can continue debating which should win Best Picture, but the victory of Moonlight inspires artists of color to create. And I’m sure, aspiring artists of color are looking up to their TV announcing a film about a black gay man winning the most prestigious award in the mainstream film industry, thinking “I can do anything.”

Does this mean Hollywood is heading to a diverse wave of New New Hollywood, getting non-white stories out for the world? I don’t know. I hope so. We’ll see.

Also check out: La La Land: Romance and Ambition in the City of Angels / Revisiting La La Land: In Defense of a Bittersweet Ending / Moonlight: Growing Up Through a Different LensRevisiting Moonlight: The Wonder of Staying Alive

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