They snicker. They roll their eyes. The world’s filmmaking elite or those that think they are part of it will dismiss the Academy Awards without a moments hesitation. They will claim the Palm d’Or handed out at the Cannes Film Festival is more prestigious. Being named the Best Picture from a lauded critics group or poll of cinephile film critics is a higher honor. They’ll laugh at Best Picture winners such as “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” or “Argo” as evidence that the Oscars aren’t true artistic cinema. And, perhaps, they will begrudgingly acknowledge a winner such as “No Country For Old Men,” “The Hurt Locker” or “12 Years A Slave.” But deny a nomination to a “masterpiece” such as “Carol”? Well, the Academy is obviously made up of the simpletons they always thought it was.
That argument is officially over.
In 2017, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted for “Moonlight” as its Best Picture winner. A $1.5 million budgeted drama set in three time periods about a black boy trying to find himself as a teenager and adult as a gay man with few recognizable names and a director and screenwriter who had not made a film in nine years took the industry’s top prize. A film that was universally lauded as the Best Picture of the year by critics not only in the United States, but around the globe overcame a (mostly) upbeat front-running movie musical that has grossed $340 million worldwide (“La La Land“) and a feel good, true life biopic that has earned $152 million in the U.S. alone (“Hidden Figures“). “Moonlight” has earned just $22 million and outside of “Hurt Locker” is the lowest grossing winner in over 50 years.
There have been signs of course. The Best Picture nominations awards to “Her,” “The Tree of Life,” “Room,” “Whiplash,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Boyhood,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Black Swan” and “Precious,” among others, proved the Academy membership weren’t just considering period art house films in the vein of “Gosford Park” and “The Piano” as the types of independent films worthy of recognition. But none of those films won. “Moonlight” did. And, again, it beat a movie (“La La Land”) that tied the record for the most nominations ever. That’s utterly remarkable.
Before “Moonlight”’s win the thought was these sorts of artistic achievements could earn a nomination thanks to the expanded Best Picture field, but a win would be too difficult to pull off. The Academy was too old. Too set in its ways. Too “Hollywood” (whatever the hell that means these days). Too subconsciously (or consciously) racist. Too misogynistic. Too in love with itself to ever anoint those films as Best Picture. Something has clearly changed. It may be that the 600 or so new members added in 2016 (the largest new class this century) along with the 120 or so whose voting privileges were revoked skewed how the collective voice of the Academy. It could be the current political climate. It could be that the aforementioned artistic endeavors that previously earned Best Picture nominations opened the eyes and hearts of longtime members. It’s likely a combination of a number of factors, but its real and its going to have an impact on the Oscars going forward. Especially as the Academy looks to international filmmakers, actors, writers and producers to meet its goal of a more diverse membership in the years to come.
Yes, there will still be broad, old school nominees that will find love such as “Hacksaw Ridge” or “American Sniper.” Yes, an Emma Stone will likely beat an Isabelle Huppert for Best Actress in the future and there are issues to be sorted out with some of The Academy’s branches and categories (don’t get me started on Live Action Short), but there will also be many more “Moonlights” and Barry Jenkins and Mahershala Alis in the years to come. It hasn’t happened overnight, but it has happened. This is an Academy that is embracing the art of its art form and moving forward, not backward.
And for an entity such as he almost 90 year-old Academy to champion these artistic achievements is utterly remarkable and the possibilities of what these awards might inspire in the next generation of filmmakers is endless. And decades to come when historians look back at when they Academy took this turn they will see it truly began in earnest with “Moonlight.”
So, forget the mix-up. Ignore the conspiracy theories. This is something to celebrate from the mountaintops. This is the power an entity such as the Academy Awards and the subsequent awards season that leads up to it can have in society.
Honestly, I still can’t believe it myself, but boy is it something to get excited about.