Everybody likes an underdog story. What’s not to love about seeing someone we care for beating the odds and getting their moment in the spotlight, after all? And what a spotlight this is: it lights the stage of the most watched telecast on Earth, the Oscars.
Hollywood likes many things: money, a good story, money, and patting itself on the back. When patting itself on the back also makes for a good story, then Hollywood embraces it fully. For instance: Michael Keaton being nominated for the best actor trophy for Birdman, wasn’t that a great come-back story? Granted he didn’t win, but it cemented his return in the good graces of the movie gods. How about The Artist, the black and white silent film made by a bunch of French iconoclasts in a deliberate, shameless homage to the early classics of the industry? The film itself wasn’t sold to audiences: the story of the film was. As filmmakers, writers and the greatest marketers know: what matters is telling a good story.
So how did Moonlight get to tell its story? How did this small-budget feature about a disenfranchised character earn the top gong at the most prestigious ceremony in the business, when it was running against a critical darling, the incredibly charming La La Land? Well, it’s a good story, the kind that’s too odd to be made up -the kind that Hollywood loves, ironically.
What were the odds?
The odds were not in favour of Moonlight. First, it was made on an incredibly small budget of $1.6 million and was up against La La Land‘s $30 million and Arrival‘s $47 million. Of course, that’s not technically to say that the artistic merits were lesser in Barry Jenkins’s effort, but it just meant that the movie had less money to spend on being noticed.
Moonlight isn’t a crowdpleaser, and didn’t have “names” attached, at least not on the scale of its main rival: this shows just in terms of box-office. La La Land has earned over $300 million and keeps opening in new territories (including recently China), when our indie darling has managed to rake in $22 million.
Moreover, the content made for an uphill battle. It’s easier to love two beautiful, well-known white people falling in love and pursuing their dreams than an African American boy who grows up gay against what seems like unsurmountable odds.
So what happened?
Well, several things happened. The first one is the writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and his pairing with director Barry Jenkins. The combination of their immeasurable talents as well as their search for the profound humanity of their character made for, quite simply, a beautiful and heart-wrenching story, which was magnified by a deft execution at every level of the filmmaking process.
Then, you have to take into account the temperature of the market in which Moonlight arrived. Last year’s awards season was marked by the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and the call for more diversity and better representation of minorities in the film industry. The Birth of a Nation was expected to be this year’s solution to last year’s controversy -that is until its writer-director and star made headlines for an old story about sexual assault that re-surfaced.
It was not just the film market. The theme of Barack Obama’s second term became racial tensions and the systemic racism still affecting the African American community in the United States. The presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump also drew attention to the fact that progress and the rights of minorities are not to be taken for granted. (This has also, most unfortunately, been clearly illustrated by the new President.) Many viewed Trump’s behaviour as a perfect example of what toxic masculinity was, and how an unqualified man didn’t have to beat as many odds for the same role as an over-qualified woman.
In that landscape arrives Moonlight. It’s a film that takes place in the reality that many in the African American community are familiar with. It’s also a film that touches on masculinity and its expectations on the weight it has on a young gay man. Most vibrantly, the scene in the first chapter when Chiron asks “Am I a faggot?” may sound all too familiar to gay men, black or white, as their first approach to their sexual orientation, as something to be looked down on.
This depiction of the singularity of queer loneliness also came at a point when marriage equality had just been made legal in the United States and was suddenly seen as all too fragile.
The emergence of Moonlight was, simply put, incredibly relevant. It touched on issues that are timely, dealt in a timeless way. It also dealt with them in an intersectional way, at a point when public discourse and activism seems ready to embrace multiple causes, as the Women’s March has shown.
Finally, it went through the inevitable festival circuit, starting with Telluride, and building up momentum all the way to the Oscars ceremony.
Moonlight in the spotlight
Many saw it quite symbolic that the first film to win best picture that dealt with a gay issue (over ten years after Brokeback Mountain‘s egregious snub), and a black issue happened in utter chaos and confusion. The result, however, is that this film has now made history, and this should be celebrated.
Filmmakers should also rejoice that a micro-budget feature made it all the way to the top. It gathered incredible talent because it had something to say that was timely and touching. Passion hasn’t yet been corrupted by money. It found its niche in a market that’s overcrowded by content, and found a way to expand and soar.