There Never Was an Academy Awards Battle Between ‘La La Land’ and ‘Moonlight’

It's important to recognize storytelling that gives voice to the voiceless. The Oscars, however, are not that important.

“seems like everybody on earth agrees moonlight is the actual best movie of the year so that’s good at least”

— Kath Barbadoro (@kathbarbadoro)

When Damien Chazelle began conceiving of La La Land six years prior to its rapturously received wide release, he was probably thinking of how one could conceive an old-school Hollywood musical in the modern day. The Harvard-educated Chazelle — whose encyclopedic knowledge of cinema gives him the vibe of “a director running for Student Council President of the Movies”, in the clever words of A.S. Hamrah — no doubt spent plenty of time studying up on Astaire, Demy, and all other iterations of musical cinema in between. Teaming up with his undergraduate roommate and Whiplash composer Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle crafted a vivacious tribute to a bygone genre while also putting a whole lot of modern charm on the screen.

Barry Jenkins, upon receiving an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, no doubt knew that he had genius on his hands. In making Moonlight, a unique interpretation of McCraney’s script in which Jenkins interpolates his experiences of growing up in Miami into the original text, Jenkins sought to tell a story about a kind of character that rarely gets centrality in Hollywood cinema. The masterfully shot Moonlight‘s depiction of a gay black man from his youth to his adulthood is something the likes of which most cinema-going audiences have never seen. In addition to its numerous aesthetic merits — few films in recent memory, or perhaps cinema history, have so vivid and lush a color scheme — Moonlight is a reminder of all the stories we haven’t been hearing, stories that directors, screenwriters, and actors the world over are itching to tell. Jenkins saw something in Chiron, the protagonist of his film, and wanted his story told.

What certainly never crossed Jenkins and Chazelle’s mind is any version of the following sentence: “I sure hope this movie beats out all other movies at the Oscars once it’s released.”

As it so often happens, the Oscars have “pitted” two entirely incomparable films against each other for the title of Best Picture. Along with seven other nominees — all of which have pronounced differences from the others — Moonlight and La La Land have been deemed, in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) the best of the best in 2016 cinema. As with every year there was some clear Oscar bait — although it’s worth noting that rarities like the superb Hidden Figures prove that you can artfully play into award season expectations — but Moonlight and La La Land are excellent examples of their respective styles, and both are worthy of recognition for distinct reasons.

But to extrapolate this “conflict” beyond the realm of the Oscars itself is a mistake. In an interview with Time, Jenkins said in response to a question regarding the competition between his film and La La Land, “They could not be more different films. I don’t think a love for one has to be to the rejection of the other. I can only speak to the film I made, which was made in the service of shining a light on a character who is often marginalized.” Jenkins also told Esquire, “I think there’s a very superficial read of La La Land that does injustice to what Damien’s doing in the film, and it’s convenient because these are tough times to make a superficial read of that film. But it’s like, no, this is America. This is what this shit is. You gain something; you sacrifice something else in the gaining of that thing. I mean, that’s dark stuff.”

Yet if one were to read any of the coverage leading up to the 2017 Oscar ceremonies, held on Sunday 26 February, one would think that Moonlight and La La Land are poised with swords aimed at each other’s throats. Both films, although entirely different in their intentions, styles, and tones, are for many reasons being leveraged as proxy warriors in a conflict that has plagued the Academy Awards for decades, coming to full fruition in recent years. #OscarsSoWhite, anyone?

No article better represents this trend than an important piece by Amrou Al-Kadhi for The Independent, boldly titled, “I’m an Arab actor who’s been asked to audition for the role of terrorist more than 30 times. If La La Land cleans up at the Oscars, I’m done.” Eye-grabbing as it is, the title misleads somewhat; “I’m done” does not, if the actual text of Al-Kadhi’s piece is any indication, mean that he is giving up on acting entirely. Al-Kadhi is an artistic polymath, with skills and experience in filmmaking, writing, and live comedy. The decision of one awards ceremony will not stop him from following his career path.

Nevertheless, his grievance over La La Land‘s probable (and almost) win is no small one. The 26-year old Al-Kadhi notes that as a result of his being Arab, “I’ve been sent nearing 30 scripts for which I’ve been asked to play terrorists on screen. Roles have varied from ones as meaty as ‘Suspicious Bearded Man on Tube’ to ‘Muslim man who hides his bombs in a deceptive burka.'” He writes that while there are more roles for Arab actors post-9/11, those roles exist on “the faceless periphery”, where Arab actors are left “clutching a prop detonator while a famous white man acts his ass off and earns an Oscar in the process.”

Al-Kadhi’s argument is hard to refute, because there are no grounds to refute it. If a core value of cinema is “to illuminate ignored identities, and to challenge the ideas that prejudice and politics would have us believe” as Al-Kadhi says, then it’s important to recognize that “aesthetic merit” does not simply refer to acting, cinemaphotography, and lighting. The kind of stories we tell matter. Representation matters. This is the very basis of Hidden Figures: history is written by the privileged, and in crafting narratives the marginalized are almost always left out. Film, like many of the other great art forms, is a medium for uncovering hidden figures.

For Jenkins, the honor of being the first black writer-director to get three key Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, the latter for the Adapted category), is “bittersweet”, precisely because he “shouldn’t be the first”. He elaborates, “I’ll be happy when there’s no longer any space for firsts because it’ll mean those things have been done. I wouldn’t be the first person who’s merited this distinction. I don’t understand how someone like Spike Lee has never been nominated for these three awards.”

Moonlight undoubtedly achieves what Al-Kadhi says it does, which was not incidentally one of Jenkins’ main aims for the film: telling a story about a kind of person who so rarely gets the spotlight. Moonlight, along with Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences, also represents another key improvement in award recognition. Too often, films featuring people of color in lead roles are based on historical narratives that feature people who couldn’t be portrayed by anyone but a person of color. Think of the women in Hidden Figures, and other recent award-nominated performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Will Smith (Concussion): these are films that, despite Hollywood’s penchant for white-washing, cannot have white actors in those roles. (Though the industry will still do its best to bestow titles like The Last Samurai on white men.)

While all of the actors of color in the incredible ensembles of Hidden Figures and 12 Years a Slave deserve award recognition, so too do the original characters portrayed by actors of color. Just as we must remember the important achievements of those who came before us — especially those individuals hidden from our view — we must also include people of all races, sexual identities, and nationalities in our cinematic and cultural imagination. Moonlight is an important step in that direction.

Al-Kadhi’s argument is a firm reminder that for all of the inclusivity and liberal values that Hollywood likes to preach — recently typified in Meryl Streep’s Cecil B. DeMille acceptance speech at the 74th Golden Globe Awards — the industry has a long way to go before it considers itself a bastion for all-inclusive storytelling. But Al-Kadhi chooses to impact his point in an unnecessary way, writing, “Moonlight NEEDS to win Best Picture. Not only because it’s a cinematic feat that is to La La Land what Frida Kahlo is to paint-by-numbers, but because it sends an urgent message. A message that we’re ready to empathize with any story, no matter how far away they are from us, and how much they defy our systemic misconceptions.”

The problem identified by Al-Kadhi and other critics of the Oscar’s long-standing favoritism to whiteness is a broad one that encapsulates not just one awards ceremony, but indeed the whole film industry. Al-Kadhi’s experience of racism-by-limited-casting is something that exists well outside of the walls of the Dolby Theatre. By framing the issue of Hollywood’s lack of storytelling diversity as contingent upon the results of one awards ceremony, Al-Kadhi gives the Oscars too much credence where they should be given much less. If AMPAS does any grandstanding in the wake of declaring Moonlight Best Picture, be forewarned: one award doesn’t amount to an entire reversal of standard Hollywood practice.

Al-Kadhi writes that if La La Land were to take home the bevy of trophies it’s nominated for – it ended up taking home five out of its 14 nominations – it “would be a sign that the industry prioritises the celebration of itself first of all, self-indulgently rejoicing in its own nostalgic – and white – mythology.” This would be correct, were it not the case that Hollywood has already sent this very sign out numerous times over its long existence. In addition to the self-congratulatory spectacle of the whole ceremony, the Oscars are notorious for awarding films that highlight the importance of Hollywood storytelling. 2014’s Best Picture winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, an eye-roll inducing homage to white narcissism, and 2011’s winner The Artist, a milquetoast and dewy-eyed tribute to the silent film era that gets a lot of the history of that time period dead wrong, are key cases where Hollywood’s love of looking at itself in the mirror won out above all else. The self-reflexive La La Land, which exists to answer the interesting if academic question, “Can the live action movie musical still exist in 2016?, would indeed continue that trend. The Academy has tipped its hand numerous times before, and there’s little indication that it will cease living by the dictum, “Hollywood, love thyself.”

Making the case for a Moonlight victory at the Oscars for The Daily Beast, Marlow Stern says, “If Hollywood truly sees itself as a thought/change leader, then it should give the Best Picture Oscar to its rightful recipient: Moonlight.” Hollywood certainly does see itself that way. But does it see itself truly, even though it did christen Moonlight the best film of 2016?

One way to counter the masturbatory excesses of the awards season cycle is to stop privileging them above all else. Consider this: over ten years later, does anyone think that Crash is the superior film to Brokeback Mountain because it took home the gold and the other didn’t? Is the greatness of Ava DuVernay impinged upon in the slightest because the Academy failed to recognize her critical work on Selma with a nomination? One can even draw from a recent example in the music industry: ten years from now, will anyone remember Adele‘s 25 as anything but reliable sing-along fodder? Will the complexity and genius behind Beyonce‘s Lemonade be forgotten simply because one voting body decided not to give it a specific award?

The “battles” between films like Moonlight and La La Land are purely artificial. They exist for no reason other than that the Academy likes to throw a big, gaudy party for itself each year. In a more sane universe, no one after seeing Moonlight would think to herself, “I wonder how this dark, complicated drama compares to that light and airy musical La La Land.” A thought like that can only exist where a private institution decides to create an arbitrary competition that pits the two against each other, even though the filmmakers in question sought to make art, not a competitor in a fight.

To be sure, Al-Kadhi’s point about recognition and representation is crucial. Films like Moonlight do need to be recognized. We should lift up those moviemakers who bring to light and invent stories that go above and beyond what mainstream audiences in white, Western countries expect from a motion picture. But the question of the Oscars is much more narrow than that. The question is not, “Should movies like Moonlight be recognized?”; instead it’s, “Should this specific body recognize movies like Moonlight?” Beneath the latter question lies another one: “Does the recognition of this specific body matter?”

Once upon a time, the answer to the latter question might have been a more pertinent issue. But given the Oscars’ repeated failings to give adequate representation to artists of color, to stories that go above and beyond award-season tearjerkers and odes to the brilliance of filmmaking, it’s about time that people stopped playing into the Oscar’s hands. Following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy at the 2016 Oscars — “also known as the White People’s Choice Awards,” as host Chris Rock said in his riotous opening monologue — the Academy did a better job of recognizing actors of color in its list of nominees for Sunday’s ceremony, and it did ultimately choose to have Moonlight win out over La La Land. Yet it did so in spite of not recognizing three of the key players in Moonlight‘s success: Barry Jenkins (who lost Best Director to Damien Chazelle), Nicholas Brittell (who lost Best Original Score to Justin Hurwitz), and James Laxton (who lost Best Cinemaphotography to Linus Sandgren). Moonlight took home the top honors in a shocking envelope switch blunder, yet in many key respects the Academy still privileges self-worship.

AMPAS’ history is full of moves that are one step forward and two steps back. When the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to upwards of ten nominees, after the 2008 awards in which the critical and audience favorite The Dark Knight was shut out. Rather than actually consider its genre biases and begin recognizing films like The Dark Knight in a five-movie Best Picture slate, it simply made the list bigger, tacitly affirming its original belief while giving the appearance that it had changed things.

The Academy is showing some signs of getting better on representation, but its self-infatuation has not diminished. Eventually, we have to stop critiquing the Academy and hoping it will become a paragon of wokeness and instead work to establish the greatness the Oscars aim to enshrine by other means. Otherwise, the Academy is setting the terms for the debate, and it’s abundantly evident that it has been terrible at setting those terms.

If Oscar voters finally come to their senses and start consistently paying attention to the breadth of human experience, the kind that goes far beyond the realm of stale biopics and metacommentaries on life as a movie star, perhaps their input will have some value. For now, their pace is best described as too little, too late. It took until 2017 to give Viola Davis an acting award — many, myself included, would say she deserved a statuette for 2011’s The Help — and even then the Academy gave her short service, classifying her clearly leading role in Fences as a “supporting” performance.

There are plenty of grounds upon which to criticize La La Land. In a fine feature for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Morgan Leigh Davies identifies an undeniable mainsplain-y streak throughout the film. The film’s notion of “rescuing jazz” in the 21st century is at least a little questionable. (When John Legend is the voice of “progressive jazz” in your movie, complete with a catchy if largely un-jazzy pop number, you might want to reconsider what you’re thinking about jazz.) But La La Land suffered a fate that no film should have to suffer: becoming a linchpin for an awards season, industry-generated narrative. Take La La Land out of the awards cycle, out of comparisons with films it bears no stylistic or genre resemblance to, and you undoubtedly will get a different series of reactions.

Awards season narrative gaming has resulted in La La Land taking criticism for things it was never in the enterprise of participating in, and it has caused the adulation of Moonlight to be unnecessarily defensive. If Moonlight is a transformative film, as I believe so many of its critics are right to say, that remains the case irrespective of what a group of voters in a private organization say is “the best”. Moonlight‘s greatness would remain the case even if it was nominated for no awards at all. It’s good, of course, that it was nominated, and it’s good that it won many of the awards for which it was nominated, namely Mahershala Ali (Best Supporting Actor), Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney (Best Adapted Screenplay), and Best Picture. But in the grand scheme of things, an Oscar is a pat on the back for a film like Moonlight which has been nominated for and has won dozens of other awards, and has been affirmed by audiences and critics all over the world. If the Oscars didn’t exist, Moonlight would still be an astounding work of art.

Whatever your opinion of La La Land and Moonlight are, one thing is for sure: what the Oscars say doesn’t matter. In my own view, La La Land is an exuberantly fun musical with a fine score by Hurwitz, even if it’s a bit too pre-occupied with how out of place its genre of choice is in the 21st century. Chazelle’s extensive study of film is one of its great benefits even when it gives certain shots a feeling of a citational footnote. Moonlight is gorgeous in a different way: along with its stunning cinemaphotography and color palette, it features intimate performances that aren’t showy in the way so many award-winning films are. The characters of Moonlight, particularly Chrion, don’t insist upon their depth, even though it’s obviously there. The lumbering piano notes of Brittell’s score to Moonlight echoed in my brain long after I left the theatre. I formed these opinions of Moonlight and La La Land independently of the other. Although the two movies were released in the same calendar year, there is little reason to juxtapose the two.

Discussions of greatness and cinematic achievement are ongoing. The phrase “Oscar winner for Best Picture” is one data input in an extended conversation – one that will long outlast 2016 – about how important these films are (or aren’t) to the legacy of cinema. There are plenty of films that bear the title “Best Picture” that have, over time, fallen out of the conversation about great cinema. Dances with Wolves and The English Patient aren’t usually thrown around as objects of greatness in film school seminars. Years later, Chicago and Slumdog Millionare don’t get a fraction of the reverence bestowed on films like Moonlight. If Warren Beatty’s initial call on the Dolby Theater stage was correct, Moonlight would not lose an ounce of staying power.

Those arguing for Moonlight over La La Land are right about one thing, undoubtedly one of the critical objectives for the movie industry going forward: stories like those crafted by Jenkins and McCraney deserve a wide audience and a reliable source of funding. Where that argument goes wrong is in assuming that such a sea change will happen as a result of the Oscars. For all of the times the golden statuette has gone to the right person, there are dozens of other cases of exclusion and snubbing. For every inventive and original story presented to Academy voters, there are numerous self-congratulatory movies about moviemaking that trounce bolder visions. At what point is enough, enough?

Shaun King of the New York Daily News is correct to say that the implications of greater representation of artists of color are significant. The historic nomination of six black male and female actors, writes King, “means that films like this will continue to be written and well-funded. The world has demonstrated that not only do such films deserve critical acclaim, but they can be box office successes as well. This recognition should mean a substantive,qualitative improvements in roles and films we see about black life from this point forward.” He qualifies, “We cannot assume that will be the case, of course, but these nominations help that battle.”

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s crazy to demand that AMPAS give recognition to films that exist outside its wheelhouse, particularly given its widely documented racial and ethnic blind spots. The influence the Oscars have is considerable. Great art demands recognition, and for too long the Oscars have been about awarding Oscar movies, not great movies. The question of how to deal with the Oscars given its sordid history on this matter is not to boycott it entirely, nor is it to say that the institution can never change. Instead, the question is how much weight and consideration should be given to what the Oscars nominate?

Given the history of exclusion in the Oscars – not to mention the number of times they’ve simply gotten it wrong — arm’s length is the best distance with which to engage AMPAS. Moonlight took home Best Picture, which could bode well in all of the ways that Al-Kadhi and King point out. We should all share their hope. But the Academy went from awarding the harrowing 12 Years a Slave one year to crowning the self-congratulatory Birdman at the following year’s ceremony. A Moonlight Best Picture victory is a thing to celebrate, but it should not distract us from what AMPAS has been for so long a time.

It’s important to recognize brave storytelling, storytelling that gives voice to the voiceless, to those we so often see on the periphery but rarely in the center of the frame. The Oscars, on the other hand, are not important; they are self-important, and it’s high time we started treating them as an elaborate song and dance, and nothing else. The unnecessary competition between Jenkins’ and Chazelle’s films does foreground the need for recognition, but we must also ask what kind of recognition is right, or even worth it. Years from now, when we look back on the greatness of Moonlight, its treatment during award season will be the smallest of sideshows. Its greatness will overshadow the rest — even its title of Best Picture. If during that time people still talk about La La Land, they will do so free of the falsely adversarial dynamic between it and Moonlight: in other words, how these films were meant to be talked about in the first place.