The Lessons We Must Learn From the 2017 Academy Awards
Please do not be mistaken: Moonlight winning Best Picture does not make up for the past sins of the Academy. It does not absolve it of future responsibilities to actors, writers, directors, and audiences of color. It does not fix our societal woes. Moonlight winning Best Picture, nor Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting Actor, nor Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress — those things do not make Hollywood more diverse.
But they are important.
It’s important because, if we’re being honest, Moonlight was the best picture. This wasn’t Denzel winning for Training Day (a solid performance whose award is often seen as the consolation prize for not winning in prior years). Moonlight is a gorgeous, intelligent, deeply affecting, powerfully emotional, incredibly acted, nuanced, brilliant piece of filmmaking. It’s a unique picture, covering difficult and complex and oft-ignored subject matter. That it succeeded at all is a marvel in and of itself. Hell, that it got made is a marvel. But it did get made, and it got made into something incredible.
It’s a film that is nothing but marginalized groups. It’s a film about poor, black, gay men that has zero stereotypes or cliches. It shows the struggles of young gay men, but it also normalizes their gayness. It shows the loneliness, but also shows that Chiron, the main character, is not alone. It shows difficulty, but not despair. But it also talks about race without, you know, Talking About Race. It’s probably the first well-recognized black film that isn’t actually about racism. It features a literal all-minority cast. I don’t believe there is a single Caucasian to be found in the entire film.
And it does all of these things completely organically and seamlessly. It is a marvel of film making. It broke my heart, and it lifted my spirit, and it made me love movies all over again.
And in the din and aftermath of the botched handoff, we should remember the film, not that moment. But we should also remember that the fight for equality, in Hollywood and everywhere else, is not solved by a single victory. Moonlight won because it was undoubtedly the actual best picture, but it also won because of years and years of pressure on the Academy to recognize films like it in the first place. To stop ignoring the work of people of color, to stop giving them token appreciation. It is both of these things. The greatest mistake that would come out of this victory would be to assume its victory is due to only one of those things. Because as incredible as Moonlight is, if this was five years ago, with the same slate of nominees, it would not have won.
Look, this was a solid weekend for black film. Get Out is becoming an unexpected, but well-deserved juggernaut at the box office. Moonlight won best picture. Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor. Viola Davis won for Fences (in a category where three out of five nominees were people of color). And all of these things are for films that eschew the typical Hollywood narrative for black people. They are people who are not slaves or servants. They are not gangbangers (I know you’re going to be tempted to say this isn’t true of Moonlight but come on. That’s hardly the point of the film). They aren’t sidekicks or props for white people. They are fully-realized human beings, in stories about people of color that are told without resorting to stereotypes or tropes. And for once — for once — the Academy recognized that.
And that’s a good thing. But we, as audiences and critics and writers, need to make sure that it is not the last good thing. There are incredible works of art by people of color produced every single year, and it’s a war to get them to be recognized. That war is not over just because one battle was won. That victory is a critical and wonderful victory, but hardly the end of the line. We need to keep talking about things like this, keep writing and arguing and tweeting and speaking out. Because make no mistake — all we ever wanted was to be recognized, to be given the same opportunities. Nothing more. Just even footing.
In her 2015 acceptance speech at the Emmys, Viola Davis said this:
“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’ That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. “
And so we need to continue to fight for people to have these opportunities. To show that these stories, stories of black people and their lives and their struggles, are stories for everyone to see and enjoy and appreciate. We need to show that we can continue to tell stories about people of color where they are not slaves or butlers or maids, where they are more than things. Last night’s Academy wins are wonderful, and I am proud of those who won. But never forget that those wins did not take place in a vacuum. They won because they were the best, but they also won because we fought to make people open their eyes and watch them in the first place. Let us never forget that, and let us keep fighting until that is no longer something we need to fight for.
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