After the historic mix-up at this year's Academy Awards, where presenters awarded La La Land the event's highest honour by mistake, countless critics came out in defence of the night's real winner, Moonlight. With six Oscar nominations, Moonlight won the support of both critics and filmgoers. Some fans, however, when praising the film's victory, cited La La Land's problematic race politics as cause for the film's (and its' cast and crew's) public humiliation.
This line of argument is unfair to both Moonlight and La La Land. Both were acclaimed, and both tried to transform cinema by innovating film techniques, structures and old plot devices. That Moonlight deserved to win goes without saying (La La Land, after all, seemed dead set on defiling the legacies of all things Hollywood). Yet the merits that make Moonlight Best Picture-worthy have been overlooked in criticism that favours discussion of comparative identity politics. The Daily Show's host, Trevor Noah, for example, called the Best Picture mix-up a case of Black people receiving instant "reparations".
Of course, popular films are often subject to justified criticism over their politics of representation. In 2016, several high-profile filmmakers boycotted the Academy Awards, after it emerged that next to no black filmmakers or films had received nominations. This recent history may be why Moonlight's triumph seemed, at least partially, the direct consequence of #OscarsSoWhite.
Certainly, the #OscarsSoWhite protest remained with us while discussions of identity took centre stage for this year's awards favourites. Apart from Moonlight, 2016/17 films that dealt with race, gender and sexuality included Fences, Lion and Hidden Figures. The films that failed to deal with these concerns directly (La La Land, for one) seemed to be speaking volumes in their silence.
One can, of course, judge just about every story based on its approach to the politics of representation. That is what made some films during the last year such thrilling, fresh and compelling cinematic undertakings. Hidden Figures takes on the narrow views that theatre-goers may have of the Space Race during the 1960s. Fences narrates the dark under-side of the original American Dream – a type of unapologetically black Death of a Salesman. Each of these, in its way, contributes new shades of knowledge and understanding to our collective historical imagination. And they do so by telling good stories.
The film Moonlight tells the story of a boy who comes to grasp the meaning of his identity. He is black, queer and is from an underprivileged neighbourhood. His mother is a drug addict. His mentor, a drug dealer played by Mahershala Ali, is a complex character who the boy grows to mimic later in life. This film is a tour de force – a paean to both the marginal lives it represents and the traditional bildungsroman.
Moonlight is political; all artworks are, whether they try to or not. Moonlight does not need comparisons to La La Land to prove it is a work of genius, both in art and in politics.
La La Land, meanwhile, is a big-budget film about the death of original cinema, full of on-the-nose metaphors and homages to Old Hollywood. It has (rightfully) been slated for its portrayal of 'authentic' jazz, black people, women and its general air of tone-deaf and ahistorical nostalgia. It is the "villain" in Trevor Noah's "reparations" story. On the one hand, you have Moonlight – underdogs who triumph against racism and systemic inequality. On the other, La La Land's fraught race politics make it the cinematic equivalent of the Confederacy.
For a film like Moonlight – clever, beautiful and tasteful – La La Land's various failings should not be used as a cinematic standard. Moonlight is political; all artworks are, whether they try to or not. Moonlight does not need comparisons to La La Land to prove it is a work of genius, both in art and in politics. When we force our own readings onto it, as Trevor Noah does, we risk detracting from its many merits and cinematic achievements. Worse still, coverage starts to move towards La La Land producers' concession speech, despite their speeches (when they thought that they'd won) taking just as long as those given by the Moonlight producers (who had actually won).
Even now, coverage of the Awards tends to link the two films in a way that may prove eternally inextricable. Footage shared in news and on social media has sensationalised the historic Oscars faux pas. Yet the first three minutes are the real drama. After La La Land producer Jason Horowitz memorably says, "Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture," and before the Moonlight cast and crew walk up, the wonder has all but dissipated. Moonlight's director, Barry Jenkins, forced to make an acceptance speech after the bungled hand-over, nods to the folks they just ousted while fumbling over the audience's confused babble.
Moonlight's message and artistic brilliance has been diluted by the reparations narrative popularised by news media. This narrative distracts from the impact of an important story about minorities by introducing irrelevant talking points, specifically La La Land's problematic race politics and its producers' concession of the award for Best Motion Picture. Moonlight deserves our admiration; the rest, as they say, is politics.