For anyone who's been living under a rock this week, or for someone reading this 110 years in the future when the debacle is long forgotten, here's what happened: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway of Bonnie and Clyde (and other) fame took to the Academy Awards stage to hand out the anticipated final award of the evening, for Best Picture. La La Land, the big shiny glamorous (but still a little quirky) "rebirth of the Hollywood musical" or whatever, had tied All About Eve and Titanic for a record 14 nominations, but as the evening went on it had won some and lost some. Moonlight, the low-budget, gritty, independent coming-of-age tale that follows a poor, troubled, black boy in Miami through three life segments as he contends with bullies, hunger, a drug-addicted mother, and questioning his sexuality, and illuminates a touching relationship between him and a mentor father figure (for which role Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor), had been seen all Awards Season as the counterpoint to La La Land - and had been declared by no small number of critics to be the year's best film, I might add. So there we were, and Warren Beatty stared at the card, examining it, turning it over -- but, notably, not audibly expressing his concern, just physically -- then handed it to Faye Dunaway, who read "La La Land!" as the winner, and the producers and cast came up to the stage and gave speeches but there was a weird commotion with a stagehand in a headset and others in the mix and in the end it turns out Bonnie and Clyde had the wrong card, and Moonlight was the winner of Best Picture. OMG, right? Sooooo....exeunt, La La Land, and hey! you guys! Moonlight did it! Which is so nice and touching and triumph of the human spiritish, not to mention fun for all of us who didn't get on the Blah Blah Land hype train.
Those are the facts. Now, on to the interpretations.
In the moment, everyone watching, whether us at home or them in the theater audience, was just like, Wait, what's happening here?! The end of the Oscars became a quest to lay blame: who had the right card? who had the wrong card? who said what? what did Warren Beatty see? what did the accountants do? who was Tweeting selfies instead of focusing on his work? who knew the winner and when did they know it?! But the next day, hooo-boy, the Oscars equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking began, and how!
Suddenly, now, the whole thing was a metaphor for our perilous, racist world (and by the way: we absolutely do live in a perilous, racist world, and that is a fact. You lucky people reading this 110 years in the future know whether or not we solved anything, but here in 2017 we are all just confused and don't know why we can't get our shite together on this issue--at least those of us who aren't hideous/violent/racist/Trump-voting or some overlap of those things are confused, as to why said hideous/violent/racist/Trump-voting people don't want to just, you know, be better. But yeah, we have a legacy of racism after founding our country on genocide and slavery and we suck and we have not solved this problem yet.) Suddenly, multiple commentaries were published in which the big, moneyed, studio-backed, and white La La Land was swept off the stage (see: "all the world's a...") to be replaced by the independent, marginalized voices telling diverse stories such as Moonlight.
OK, so that's just a teensy bit overwrought to me. But, you know, it's a conflict story that we had heard a wee bit of during the awards season anyway, so it wasn't invented as Faye crowed "La la la...!" It was a chance for writers to "I-told-you-so" with their thesis, but not out of nowhere. BUT. Then there was Cosmopolitan. I partially agree with what a Cosmo writer was trying to say: namely, that Moonlight was robbed of its moment. That is true and it sucks. I have said it before and I will say it a million more times, LET THE CEREMONY RUN LONG and in this particular case, everyone should have been like, hang on! don't head for the exits! don't start that orchestra swell! and given Moonlight the longest acceptance moment on stage ever. Yes. On the other hand, I think people will remember that they won Best Picture for quite a while, unlike, say, The Artist of 2011 which even now is hard to pull up in the old memory banks, a mere five years later. But anyway, so while I partially agree with Brittney Cooper for pointing that out in an online Cosmopolitan piece, and I like other writing of hers, I strongly disagree with this part of what she said:
Much like Jimmy Kimmel, however, Americans are socially conditioned to feel the most empathy for what white folks are losing rather than for what black folks are rightfully, finally winning. Certainly Kimmel was not being malicious when he said to the La La Land producers, “I think you should just keep it anyway.” He felt bad that anyone should have to lose in such a public way. But notice that what Kimmel didn’t say is, “Let’s get Moonlight up here right now and let them have their moment.” His empathy, like that of many others, went towards the people who looked most like him on stage.No. This was a colossal screw-up and it grabbed everyone's attention, which is evident by how ALL the Oscar jabber for the next 24 hours led with the tale of the envelope screw-up. Nobody could imagine or prepare for exactly the right thing to say or do when the WRONG MOVIE's producers are standing there delivering acceptance speeches. Any movie, in any year, with writers/directors/actors of any race, would likely have elicited the exact same comment from any host. I really believe that. You're standing there, desperate to improvise in a totally unprecedented situation, and you come up with, "Ha ha ha, let's all have awards!" It's not a great line, nor is it terrible. And it really isn't as replete with meaning as the bigger institutional workings of the Academy, and of power in society, are. In fact, I think that may be libelous, to accuse host Jimmy Kimmel of feeling more empathy for white La La Land than black Moonlight. And p.s., am I only the one who also saw a white producer accepting that Moonlight award, proving again that it's SO institutional, and so much about systemic power and privilege and wealth than individual people, like Kimmel, or viewers at home, wanting things to be that way?
Brittney Cooper has some great insights about the systemic problems and racial politics of awards shows and the entertainment industry. Definitely read her thoughts here about Adele's not-racist Grammy moment just a couple weeks ago. But I challenge her statement about my or anyone's empathy. My empathy was HUGELY with Moonlight. I was watching and thinking, "Oh my god! What's happening! What are they going to do! Moonlight, you guys!" I was totally drawn to them in that moment. It's not even about which movie I liked more (for the record, I wouldn't have voted for either of them, though I ranked Moonlight slightly higher than Blah Blah Land in my ranking of the Best Picture noms). It's about that totally wackadoodle moment.
I think it is incumbent on me and other white people to think about why and how that moment can come across that way to a black writer, and to truly ask ourselves why the hell we're still living in such a world.
But I also think it is important that we don't misinterpret a laughable-if-it-weren't-so-horrible what-the-hell moment as something it's not. How is that going to help us?
(And we do need help. Have we gotten any better, at all, ye readers of the year 2127?)