“What just happened?” These were the words which headlined many an article reporting on the chaos which occurred on stage at the 89th Oscars on Sunday night, where bookies’ favourite La La Land appeared to attain the inevitable, only for Warren Beattie to have to prepare before an audience of millions an entire buffet of humble pie and reveal that it was the other critical darling, Moonlight, which had actually won the award. However with the racial tensions surrounding the dramatically unrepresentative Oscars of previous years and conspiracy theories already abound, it seems ‘what just happened’ was little to do with cinema or what went down on stage, and was instead the creation of a talking-point which evidences rising social narratives that are increasingly radical, vitriolic and unforgiving.
First let me say that I think La La Land and Moonlight are both wonderful films. My personal favourite was La La Land, a joyful movie which uses the very medium of it’s telling to reveal the fallacy of Hollywood’s romantic storytelling – but equally Moonlight was a delicate slow-burner whose truly enchanting mood stayed with me in the days which followed in a way very few films’ have. In fact, the strength of the Best Picture category this year was so strong, it would be hard to argue with any pick.
Something happened with Moonlight and La La Land though: a bizarre post-mortem narrative twist which defined them as something else entirely. The murmurs started with the inevitable, and entirely justified, celebration of Moonlight’s depiction of the rarely even conceived of, let alone depicted, black gay community in North America, while Gosling’s character was being called out for “mansplaining” his passions and “whitesplaining” jazz. I’d like to think that, to anyone who’d actually seen the film, such claims would seem rather baseless… firstly La La Land is almost as apolitical as a film can be (it’s commentary is on love, not race) and so such a reading was necessarily forced. Secondly, there is a twisted logic in characterising a protagonist who loves jazz music and spends the film celebrating and trying to preserve the work of the black musicians he adores as a racist. It could be said that the film is culturally conservative, although with such heady nostalgia, that does go with the territory… La La Land actually shares a lot with Moonlight which, despite it’s progressive cultural implications, is not a political polemic either, and whose greatest assets are its graceful personal depiction of one adolescent’s struggle with love, rejection and strife.
Nonetheless, the narrative gained traction and by Sunday night had reached a fever pitch. Now what was at stake was American race relations: La La Land was an all-out racist tome and anything but a Moonlight victory would be the instigator of a cultural war. The implications of this worldview are vast-raging and horrific. The damnation for Gosling’s character’s love of jazz revives a world in which skin colour dictates who can enjoy which forms of art, and the merit of a film is determined not by the quality of it’s construction but by the colour of its characters. It’s the starting gun of the slow death of the multi-cultural dream, suffocated by the very people who fought so nobly for it’s instigation. Its a world without nuance: where because one film didn’t represent an ill-represented part of society, it actively seeks to silence it. Of course in the real world a La La Land win need not be racially implicative, and even the eventual Moonlight victory was decided by the exact same group of predominantly old, white men.
One consolation amongst the embarrassment on the Oscars stage was the grace of the La La Land cast and crew. Producer Jordan Horowitz managed to absorb what had happened and announce decidedly that Moonlight was the actual winner, in a display of dignity I certainly couldn’t imagine showing having had one of my lifetime dreams attained only to then have it taken away. Since then it’s cast has been impressively graceful and congratulatory. Naturally however, what actually occurred on stage plays little into the narrative of the night, and certain voices piped up with comments such as these:
Much vitriol was reserved for the producer who was mid-way through thanking his wife when he was interrupted by news of the error:
Not only is it absolutely appalling to baselessly characterise somebody as a racist, especially when they showed such grace in defeat, but such hysteria also hurts discussion of genuine issues of representation in cinema; such as the fact that the Academy is indeed deeply unrepresentative (it is made up of just 11% people of colour, as opposed to the 37% population of the United States), that there are far fewer roles available to non-white actors than the reverse – and female directors are in dreadfully short supply. The bizarre classification of La La Land and it’s creators as racist is so ridiculous, it will actually harm progress in these regards to the common-sense hungry public.
More than anything, the whole shambles is just sad: it spoils the art it seeks to celebrate. Idiots like those cited above plant seeds of doubt that the well deserving Moonlight didn’t win an award because of its merit but because of insurmountable pressure from #OscarsSoWhite ideologues. Meanwhile La La Land, one of the most sincere and life-affirming films of recent years started January as a ray of hope, and ends February as a white supremacist, culture appropriating facist opus in a Birth Of A Nation vein. Instead of celebrating that fact that (alongside Silence, Manchester By The Sea, Toni Erdmann and Jackie) we are going through a golden age of cinema, a false dichotomy was manufactured around two of its crowning achievements and they were pitted against one another. Both films are tarnished for it.
Of course this isn’t really about films. It’s easy to see last night as a potentially defining moment in our culture, not just because of it’s large-platform and easy meme-a-bility, but because it’s a moment that is being discussed across society, making it a ripe test of our collective mettle… and the prognosis isn’t good. It’s a talking-point which turns a meaningless awards show (because all award shows are meaningless, largely just a self-congratulatory party for a wealthy elite, especially to the majority of fans who actually show up to see niche films like Moonlight in the first place) into a landmark event, and what is laid bare is a society more divided and racially conscious than at any time since the 1960’s. This intensification shows no signs of abating. I dread the day when the general public starts to become more tired of this hysteria than actual racism. Politics today is mostly emotional – and a man being called a white supremacist for thanking his wife for support is an emotive thing. If sparks can fly around something as trivial as cinema, how will we fare when something of consequence like this happens in the real world?
I’d appreciate any thoughts or other perspectives on this.
Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones