'Moonlight' earns WGA best original screenplay: Could big Oscar win be next?

'Moonlight,' which depicts the life of a young gay black man, received one of the highest awards from the Writers Guild of America. What are the movie's chances on Oscars night?

David Bornfriend/A24/AP
'Moonlight' stars Mahershala Ali (l.) and Alex Hibbert (r.).

The film "Moonlight" took home the Writers Guild of America award for best original screenplay on Sunday. Can the portrayal of a young, gay, black man could beat out the box office hit – and predominantly white – "La La Land" for best picture at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26?

Starring Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, each portraying a young black man named Chiron at a different age, "Moonlight" centers on a narrative that many say is rare to see onscreen, let alone recognized at award shows. The film’s director, Barry Jenkins, said in an interview with Time Magazine that he had heard from many viewers saying that they “never thought that they would walk into a theater and ... see themselves onscreen.” 

“When you have such a lack of representation, such a lack of images, two things can happen,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Either you start to feel like you’re voiceless, or people who don’t live in close proximity to you can conveniently start to think you don’t exist, that you’re invisible. When images do arise to fill that lack, they take on added importance." 

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Times writer Steve Parsall wrote, “Barry Jenkins' ‘Moonlight’ is a story of a black life uniquely mattering in movies … ‘Moonlight’ shines on three phases and faces of a life that would otherwise be cast aside or closeted. Call him Little as a bullied child, his given name Chiron as a troubled teenager and Black as an unfulfilled adult. He's young, not especially gifted, black and gay.”

Following extremely positive reviews, “Moonlight” received multiple Oscar nominations, including for best picture, best director for Jenkins, and best supporting actor and best supporting actress for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, respectively. 

The suite of nominations is already a significant departure for the Academy, following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, in which only white actors were nominated for all the Oscars acting prizes. But nominations don't necessarily turn into awards. And "Moonlinght" faces stiff competition from the musical "La La Land" which brought in $134 million in US box office sales, more than six times the $21 million earned by "Moonlight."

And some argue that the Academy has been reluctant to honor movies tied to contemporary issues, sticking to safer territory. Indiewire writers Jessica Kiang and Oliver Lyttelton, for example, note that director Spike Lee's acclaimed movie "Do the Right Thing" wasn't even nominated for best picture. "It’s hardly surprising that Spike Lee’s era-defining, revolutionary 'Do The Right Thing' didn’t get more Academy love," they write. "Since when has anything truly revolutionary really been embraced by an institution that is this invested in the status quo?"

“La La Land” may be impossible to beat. Rolling Stone writer Peter Travers referenced the timing of the release of “Moonlight” in selecting the movie as his “spoiler” for the best picture race. “On the diversity scale, it's off the charts, and allows Oscar voters to congratulate themselves for being on the right side of history,” Mr. Travers wrote of “Moonlight.” But he selected “La La Land” as the “favorite.”

Hollywood Reporter writers Scott Feinberg and Todd McCarthy wrote in their Oscars predictions following the WGA winners announcement, “[‘La La Land’ will win … [and] should win … ‘La La Land’ already appears to have opened the floodgates to more original film musicals, a very welcome development. It's exhilarating, a breath of fresh air and – like most best picture Oscar winners over the past decade – not a film the big studios would have made.” 

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