Oscars: With Historic ‘Moonlight’ Win, the Academy Embraces Empathy Over Escapism

Oscars Best Picture Moonlight
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

You can always expect surprises at the Oscars, but knowing where to expect them is the trick. This year, they came early and often.

The critically loathed “Suicide Squad” became an Academy Award winner, for best makeup and hairstyling. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” shot out of nowhere with a costume design victory that nearly left winner Colleen Atwood speechless. The sound categories shot off in wildly different directions, BAFTA winner “Arrival” taking editing, war film “Hacksaw Ridge” upsetting the big musical in mixing (and finally allowing 21-time nominee Kevin O’Connell his first trip to the stage). And “Hacksaw” also doubled up before any other movie, taking film editing to boot.


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It looked like it was going to be an incredibly unpredictable evening straight on through. Then things settled into a more expected groove for a stretch.

After dropping a number of early awards, “La La Land” went on a slight tear, scooping up three-straight honors for cinematography, score and song. Pauses came for “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” to win screenplay honors, and for Casey Affleck (“Manchester”) to claim best actor. That left director Damien Chazelle, star Emma Stone and, seemingly, “La La Land” itself to finish the night strong.

But Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and a mishandled envelope had one last twist left to offer. In one of the most bizarre instances in Academy Awards history, the producers of “La La Land” discovered on stage, while accepting, that they had not in fact won best picture. “Moonlight” had.


La La Land Moonlight Oscar

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Ever since both films leaped onto the stage in the early fall festival circuit, it really seemed like Chazelle’s musical was the one to beat. Challengers came and went. Backlash inevitably struck. But when the dust settled, it wasn’t escapism’s embrace that lured voters at the end of a torturous year like 2016, but rather, a story of empathy, of compassion. It was a bit of a statement, really.

And there was history besides. Chazelle became the youngest best director winner in the Oscars’ 89-year history. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney became just the third and fourth black writers to win a screenplay prize. “Moonlight” itself became the first film from a black writer-director to win best picture. And indeed, this merely being the first Oscar telecast to feature more than three black winners was good enough for its own landmark, obviously an indictment in its own right.

There will be more to say after the night is properly processed, but that was the 89th Academy Awards, in all its odd, strange glory.

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  1. Joe says:

    What about the Indians. The real ones. Not the ones from that place called India, the American Indians. No films for them. They may as well have a list and check off the different groups of people who will win the next ‘best picture’ award. Next up: the Mexicans. This is the way the show will be going I think.

  2. Horace says:

    It may be less confusing to say that Moonlight is the first film from an African American writer-director to win best picture. Steve McQueen, who only directed 12 Years A Slave, is British. Steve writes screenplays for most of his films, so he can still be considered a writer-director.

  3. Rene Pedraza del Prado says:

    A glorious night for under-represented Hispanics! Finally the Oscars pay tribute to the unheard! Moving. Not since José Ferrer won Best Actor for Cyrano De Bergerac in the 1950’s has the Academy applauded a Hispanic actor. Bravo!

  4. Faye Kanews says:

    Moonlight was great for a student film, La La Land was great for an Ivy League thesis, Manchester was great for a foreign country government grant backed film, but as best movies? – No way.

    • Jonas says:

      I completely agree. But most would view my comments as racist and unPC. I argued that La La Land is about dreamers and dreams, a movie visually inspiring that you want to watch again and again. Moonlight is moving, but so disproportionally inferior to La La Land (structure, cinematography, production design, sound etc).

      • Richard says:

        I agree. It seems a lot of people were making it about race and it’s unfair. I’ve seen La la land so many times and had it won, it would have solidified an actual box office success– something the academy has not chosen in years and will lead to its downfall in ratings. But it should have chosen LA La land because it truly is the best film of the year

  5. sinoinsocal says:

    Moonlight was the first unabashedly out LGBT film to win best picture though. A little miffed that wasn’t in this piece

    • joe says:

      You’re right. But isn’t it amazing, that this isn’t even the focus of attention anymore? People simply see it as a great movie, not as a great ‘gay movie’. That’s cool.

  6. Rey says:

    Somewhere Steve Harvey is going PHEW!

  7. Jan says:

    “…the first film from a black writer-director to win best picture…” is indeed “Moonlight”, folks! You need to read carefully. Steve McQueen only directed, but didn’t write “12 years” (At least that’s what the credits say. I remember that McQueen was angry because he felt robbed of a writer’s credit, but that’s how it is.)

  8. Royale says:

    89th Academy Award Best-Picture contest …left some scratching their heads. 2016 Presidential Election Night contest …left some biting their nails.



  10. Hans J Spurkel says:

    The first film by a black director to win Best Picture was “Twelve Years a Slave” and not “Moonlight”, as your article says.

  11. d says:

    12 Years a slave first movie by black director to win best picture, not moonlight.

    • Edoardo says:

      The article says “black writer-director”, meaning “writer AND director for the same movie”. McQueen did not write 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley did).

      Ps: sorry Variety, I keep on hitting the “Report comment” button. Too close and too similar to the “Reply” one.

  12. ZWE says:

    this is not correct. 12 Years a Slave was the first Best Picture winner directed by a black director.

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