Why we should celebrate Moonlight’s Oscar success

Barry Jenkins

These days, debates on the future of cinema constantly deal with technological developments. It makes sense that Moonlight should be announced as the winner of the Academy Awards for Best Picture. It’s time to set everyone’s priorities straight. The Academy has finally realized that any decision it makes will potentially come back to haunt them. People who do not think that the Academy Awards are not a political affair should look at how the media basically served Donald Trump his presidency on a silver platter. In fact, proclaiming La La Land as the main Oscar winner of Trump’s first year as president would have been downright shocking – a decision on the wrong side of history.

But why?

La La Land is a perfectly likable film. In fact, it is a great film. Absolutely irresistible. Of course, one might argue that if Singin’ in the Rain never won the Best Picture Oscar, why should La La Land? Certainly, Singin’ in the Rain is among the films that Damien Chazelle pays tribute to in La La Land. The Golden Age of Hollywood produced some truly fantastic film. Many of them used the term “jazz” as a marketing hook. Jazz in these movies can, retrospectively, hardly be considered jazz. Furthermore, the stories these films talk about are white people stories. What took place, for years and years, was the appropriation of the black culture of jazz, or rather its assimilation, for the purpose of making it acceptable to wider (and whiter) audiences, and turn it into a marketing asset.

Impossible, for instance, not to notice the lack of “jazzy” songs in La La Land. The only real jazz in the movie is in a scene in which Ryan Gosling drags Emma Stone to a club whene a hard-bop band is playing a vigorous hard-bop tune. Here, like the typical white “mouldy” fig, he explains to her why it is that jazz is so great before declaring that it’s dying…Bit harsh.

We cannot complain about some of the musical masterpieces made during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. We will always have those films to fall back upon. But why return to the time when such cultural malpractice was the norm? Chazelle’s film is too much of a tribute to those time. It may have been more rewarding to see a mixed race couple, in which the white woman is unmistakably white, and the guy who gets passionate about jazz the way Ryan Gosling do, is actually black. The romance between the two should have been an encounter between two cultures. A sign of modern times. What a masterpiece for the ages La La Land would have been! Instead, La La Land, a story set in contemporary times, is another white movie.


Why is this such a problem? Let’s return to my opening statement. The future of cinema is constantly talked about in technological terms. If cinema keeps being referred to a thing of the past, then we should simply prepare to see the last cinema venue in the world demolished or burnt to the groud. The reason why it will never happen is that the future of cinema is constructed by films like Moonlight. Moonlight is an American black movie (directed by a black director, Barry Jenkins) about a black story and black people. How many such films were made even only twenty, fifteen years ago? Something has begun to shift slightly towards the representation of people whose stories were rarely, if ever, told by cinema. These are people who have never had the pleasure of identifying with cinema thus far, whose lives were more often than not relegated to stereotypical supporting roles.

White audiences may struggle to understand how alienating this may be – although white women able to imagine a more representative cinema beyond such films as Sex and the City, Fifty Shades of Grey and P.S. I Love You (or even La La Land, for that matter) may also be possibly be able to understand. We should celebrate the Academy’s decision to award Moonlight because it stands as the industry’s acknowledgement of the fact that it is prepared to potentially open its doors to stories that have not been told yet in the over 120 year history of cinema about people whose lives have barely ever genuinely been represented on the big screen and from the perspective of the members of such cultural, social or racial backgrounds.

Nothing stops anyone, of any race, colour of creed, from being entertained and deeply moved by La La Land, of course. Nonetheless, the Academy Awards should mean something more than that. This year, it did.



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