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

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.

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.

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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