At the 89th Academy Awards last Sunday, drama rocked the ceremony’s final minutes: In a move that shocked millions, it was announced that Moonlight had won Best Picture, not La La Land. In a debacle with details still to come, the La La Land producers were mid-speech when headphone-wearing producers rushed the stage. The real winner was declared graciously by La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, and the trophies were handed off to Moonlight producers Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. The air onstage was electric. Reality felt like a curtain drawn away.
Before Sunday night, I was fully, despondently prepared to write about the parallels between La La Land’s prescient victory and that of President Donald Trump last November. Now, I giddily change course. The victory of Barry Jenkins’ exquisite Moonlight feels right. It feels like the best thing to have happened in the past few months. At a time when hateful rhetoric and legislation seem to rain down without end, a film about a black gay man in Miami won the highest recognition through the most mainstream awards show there is.
From the get-go, the battle for Best Picture between La La Land and Moonlight drew eerie parallels to the 2016 presidential election. If Trump was elected to the presidency on the woes of the white working class, the self-proclaimed “forgotten” underdogs, then it seemed also fitting that La La Land director Damien Chazelle marketed himself as someone who was looked down upon for his apparently brazen and experimental idea. Chazelle, it became clear over the course of awards season, liked to think of himself as a long-shot — someone who didn’t have a chance, fooling with the American Dream in the most prototypical of ways.
But what he, like the Trump voter base, seemed to forget, was that the system was constructed to put them on top. A peddler of lost dreams and (white) nostalgia, Chazelle paraded himself as the creator of an art form audiences forgot, when the reality stands that the dream was always his. As Trump roared his promise to “Make America Great Again,” and as that slogan spread across the country, so, too, did La La Land promise its own brand of nostalgia for a past that favored white people.
Though it is a stretch to label Chazelle as someone capitalizing on the false narrative of white victimhood, when you have attached to your project two of the biggest names in the industry and the knowledge that people love musicals and that Hollywood loves itself, the claim that you were anything but an easy sell is profoundly ignorant.
Obviously, you can love La La Land without loving Donald Trump, and you can celebrate a movie for the simple reason that it fills your heart with joy. But I’m just calling it like it is, which is that the same political and systemic injustices that put Trump in power do not disappear when it comes to the silver screen. And we can ignore it, label art apolitical, indulge in the fantasy that movies serve us only as an “escape.” Or we can open our eyes and recognize the consequences of an art form that reaches billions. And those consequences are that movies — in all their glamour and glory — have taught us from the beginning how to act in real life, and that we depend on them more than we realize.
Moonlight won. And to say a phrase like that gives me goosebumps. That film was extraordinary. I have never seen a story told so elegantly in my entire life. Over the course of film history, a sprawling timeline that shamefully participated in blackface and The Birth of a Nation and yellow face and rape culture, Hollywood has finally given its crowning award to a film about a young, gay black man. Moreover, not one white person is featured in the work’s entirety. Mr. Chazelle, I implore you: Which film is the bigger miracle here?
It is strikingly symbolic and reactionary that the Academy, composed of filmmakers and businesspeople and icons, decided on Sunday that they will not retreat to an idealistic past that did not belong to everyone. That it is time not to look back but to look forward, time to place our bets in the future because that is what filmmaking has the power to change: the fabric of our society.
As much as we like to roll our eyes at how deeply Hollywood loves itself, movies also compose a great mirror in which America is forced to look itself in the eyes. And last Sunday, we looked in the mirror and saw a gay black boy staring back.
That is also America. That is us.
As if the idea of diving into the film industry as an aspiring writer isn’t frightening enough, I have worried over and over about whether the stories I write are marketable or worth listening to. And a Moonlight win proved that wrong. I am never doubting myself or what I write about again. Your story will be moving and universal as long as it is truthful and well-told. You and your voice are worth an audience, no matter who you are.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs every other Tuesday.