Thanks to the craziest Oscars ending in history, Moonlight and La La Land, two separate films, became Moonlight + La La Land, one cultural monolith. There are historic wins on both sides. Damien Chazelle, at 32, is the youngest Best Director winner ever. And Moonlight is the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture, Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim to win an acting award, it’s the first Best Picture winner about black people that isn’t an explicit racism narrative (as compared to other winners like 12 Years a Slave), it’s the first film with an all-black ensemble to win Best Picture, and it’s the first time a Best Picture film has also honored black talent in multiple categories, with historic nominations for Joi McMillon (first African-American nominated for Best Editing), and Barry Jenkins is the first black filmmaker to score the trifecta of top honors: Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.
La La Land is now forever attached to that long list of black achievements and accomplishment. (There’s a metaphor for America in there.) I like La La Land and I’m not here for the backlash, but it’s bugged me since Sunday night that the narrative is less about Moonlight’s historic moment and more about the graciousness of the La La Land team, who simply fulfilled their duty as decent human beings by acknowledging that they were not the winners and handing over the award wrongly assigned to them with minimal fuss. Let’s be clear—the producers of La La Land did nothing extraordinary on Sunday night. I can’t imagine the gut punch they must have felt, but the only correct action in the moment is to cede the stage to Moonlight.
But the Variety cover this week is Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins and the headline “Amazing Grace”, continuing the narrative that La La Land, simply by acknowledging a mistake, did something heroic. Bim Adewunmi at Buzzfeed writes eloquently about how the white producers of La La Land are getting these heroic accolades without equal acknowledgment that Barry Jenkins and the Moonlight team are showing a great deal of their own graciousness in allowing La La Land to continue to share their spotlight.
It’s a complicated moment, because the Best Picture Screw-Up of 2017 will go down as one of the most shocking Oscar moments in history, but all the credit being given to Team La La Land for behaving acceptably is overshadowing Moonlight’s monumental accomplishment. And the Variety article just highlights the very different positions within the industry Chazelle and Jenkins occupy, and how Jenkins scaled a much higher, much more difficult wall than Chazelle.
At 32, La La Land is Chazelle’s third feature film, made for $30 million, and has gone on to earn over $360 million at the box office. At 37, Moonlight is Jenkins’ second film, made for $1.5 million, with a more modest box office showing of $22 million. There is no question that they aren’t playing on the same field. Perhaps now, with his Oscar, Jenkins will get the kind of access and support Chazelle has enjoyed from the beginning. But it took an historic Oscar win to get Jenkins into the room Chazelle was ushered into right out of film school.
Variety is making their cover this week all about Chazelle’s incredible graciousness in including Jenkins in his post-Oscar feature. And it is nice! You get a sense that Chazelle and Jenkins already knew and respected each other’s work, and through award season and its bananas conclusion, they have formed real mutual admiration. There is a lesson in sportsmanship, for sure.
But let’s acknowledge Variety’s place in this. They assumed Chazelle would win Best Director, which he did, and pre-booked him for the cover profile this week. That’s how it is usually done. But if ever there was a year to break with tradition and scramble your plans to tell the story of the tiny film about a specific experience, it was now. Instead, Variety elected to make Moonlight’s win about La La Land’s graciousness, cementing forever that Moonlight’s win has less to do with Moonlight and more to do with La La Land’s super-human act of basic decency. So gracious, not being the winners that they aren’t.