“I just hope the weird pandemonium doesn’t overshadow the fact that a $1.5 million independent film by a black director about black, gay, poor people was named Best Picture. The process to get there was very weird, but it’s an amazing thing.”
- Ava DuVarnay
Someone on Facebook off-handedly commented that surprise (in so many ways) Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight” was “a little too Oscar baity”. And I took the bait, by incredulously commenting that, if anything, “Moonlight” may be the least Oscar baity film ever to win. LGBTQ protagonists/love story? African-American cast? Micro-budget indie? Films with just one of these criteria struggled to just get nominated, but never won. And sometimes even when they were so highly acclaimed they could not be ignored, they still somehow got slighted, see “Carol” last year with 6 nominations but none for director or picture, or “Selma” the year before with a picture nom but then just one more, for song. (And then there’s the homophobic backlash that bedeviled the most acclaimed movie of its year, “Brokeback Mountain”…)
And what does “Oscar Bait” even mean? It’s a lazy term that used to be applied to big historical epics or British prestige pics or anything Harvey Weinstein releases, or as of late any movie that celebrates Hollywood and Actors (Best Picture winners “The Artist”, “Argo”, “Birdman”, and 14 time nominee and 6 time winner “La La Land”). Or that snarky moniker is simply directed at any film that appears to have been produced with Academy Awards hopes in mind.
But it’s ridiculous to presume that anybody went into producing “Moonlight”, the sophomore effort from a barely known black director, based on an unproduced play, with a mostly unknown cast (certainly no famous names – even if that has now changed), set in the projects of Miami, dealing with what it means to be gay, black and male, plus a crack-addict mother and a drug dealer father figure, with a budget that is by far the smallest of any Best Picture winning film in the Academy’s 89 year history (!), thinking they were making “Oscar Bait”.
By a factor of three (gay, black and super-indie), “Moonlight” is the least likely Best Picture Oscar winner in history. And as such it represents something really special. And hopefully not a curiosity of this year but a sign of a broadening of the horizons of what an Oscar winner can be. (What’s the next glass Academy ceiling to break? Science Fiction? The recent successes of “Gravity”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Martian” and “Arrival” surely are putting many cracks in that barrier.) As we move forward maybe everyone (Oscar voter, critic, pundit, audience member) can agree that there is no distinction between a great movie and an Academy Award movie anymore. And that terms like “Oscar Bait” may be consigned to the historical idiomatic dustbin.
PS: And to those who insist, usually with sour grapes in their mouth, that people voted for “Moonlight” out of purely political reasons, to send a P.C. message in the era of Trump… yes, it is impossible not to see the continuing fall-out of the election having some influence on everyone’s thought processes, including Academy voters. This new shitty era is effecting everybody’s feelings at all times very heavily. But what had become increasingly clear over the last weeks was how much people loved “Moonlight” for its artistry above all. It is a movie that simply touches people very deeply, first and foremost, transcending all those criteria and boxes and perceptions that define and limit a film, letting it stand in the end as a beautiful work of art, unexpectedly but worthily adorned with the label “Academy Award Winner for Best Picture”.