What 'Moonlight' director Barry Jenkins wished he could have said to the Oscar audience

The part of the 2017 Oscars that most viewers will probably remember is the wrong movie being announced as the best picture winner. But the win by 'Moonlight' is memorable for other reasons.

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

When director Barry Jenkins’ movie “Moonlight” won best picture at the 2017 Oscars, his time accepting the award onstage with the film’s producers and others was unlike perhaps any other director’s. 

Actress Faye Dunaway had just mistakenly announced “La La Land” as the best picture winner and after the error was announced and the real winner, “Moonlight,” was named instead, Mr. Jenkins took the stage in what was an extremely confused situation.

Following the unusual evening, Jenkins recently told Entertainment Weekly there was more he wishes he had said at the time about the story of a young gay black man being selected for best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

“It was an imperfect situation and it was an imperfect statement that didn’t come out the right way, but it is what it is,” he said of the remarks he made on Oscars night on Feb. 26. He told Entertainment Weekly that he also wanted to say, “[Moonlight playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney] and I are this kid. We are [protagonist] Chiron. And you don’t think that kid grows up to be nominated for eight Academy Awards. It’s not a dream he’s allowed to have. I still feel that way. I didn’t think this was possible. But now I look at other people looking at me and if I didn’t think it was possible, how are they going to? But now it’s happened. So what I think of possibility, let’s take it off the table. The thing has happened.” 

What most will likely remember about the 2017 Oscars is that the wrong movie was initially announced as the winner for best picture, a mistake that is probably the biggest to have happened during an Oscars broadcast.

Yet what many have most likely forgotten is just how big an upset it was that “Moonlight” won. Most industry watchers predicted a “La La Land” victory, with a “Moonlight" upset seen as possible but not likely. In predicting the Oscar winners, Deadline writer Pete Hammond called “La La Land” “the 800-pound gorilla in the Oscar race.... At this point, barring some sort of catastrophe, the only real question seems to be not if ‘La La Land’ wins Best Picture, but just how many Oscars it takes before that final envelope is opened. It is ‘La La’’s to lose this year and the only thing perhaps holding it back might be the feeling that the movie isn’t important enough, so maybe the Academy will award the top prize to something a little meatier. Don’t count on it.” 

He did note that "Moonlight" "could be the sleeper if 'La La' stumbles ... this is one to watch."

And the Academy chose not only to award the best picture prize to a movie other than “La La Land” but to a movie that centers on the youth and adulthood of a young gay black man. Vulture writer Kyle Lincoln urges readers to not let the confusion on the Oscar stage overshadow the monumental moment that was "Moonlight"'s great win. " ‘Moonlight’ is the rare film to have a cast that’s entirely actors of color.... ‘Moonlight’ focused on the minority experience in the present-day United States – hardly typical territory for the Academy, which tends to prefer its black stories to take place in the distant past. Within the Oscar narrative, this serves as a welcome corrective to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite embarrassment, but more than that, it’s a testament to the growing power and reach of narratives about black life in America, as well as the artistry and skill with which they’re being made.” 

Mr. Lincoln also noted “Moonlight” star Mahershala Ali’s best supporting actor win, cited as the first time a Muslim actor has won an acting Academy Award. 

Meanwhile, Time writer Eliza Berman wrote that the Oscars snafu “did a disservice to ‘Moonlight.’ ”

“For such a mix-up to happen to a movie that is about a marginalized person – a poor, gay, black man – felt even more bittersweet than it might have had the situation been reversed,” Ms. Berman wrote. “’Moonlight’ has been celebrated not just for its lush cinematography, haunting score and empathetic exploration of its protagonist’s interior life, but for its representation … of people who are not with any frequency – or much nuance, for that matter – represented onscreen.... ‘Moonlight’’s victory has already been cast, controversially, in many ways: as a corrective, by Academy members, to two years of #oscarssowhite controversy – or as as Hollywood’s rebuke to President Trump. And it may be naive to suggest that politics had zero role to play in its win. But its win deserves to be recognized not as an upset or a statement but as a testament to its inherent power and beauty as a film. Let that be the narrative that sticks.”

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