The Humanist Symbolism of ‘Moonlight’ Winning ‘Best Picture’ Over ‘La La Land’

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Why did members of the Academy give the Best Picture award to a low-grossing film about a gay African-American man played by three different unknown actors, all of whom barely speak a word? A cynic might argue that they’d been feeling the heat from the #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, that there was nothing else worth awarding this year, or that the decision was primarily a rebuttal against Trump. When considered dispassionately, all these theories prove false.

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign has been on-going for two years, without any discernable effect on last year’s voting, when Selma was denied anything but Best Original Song. The throngs who love La La Land, and weren’t at all surprised to see it momentarily grasp Best Picture, prove that there were other well-reviewed films worth considering. And as for Trump, Hollywood found more direct ways to let him know how it felt about his illegitimate and divisive presidency. (Asghar Farhadi, we thank you.)

“Moonlight’s transcendent power derives from the ways in which it conveys love as a series of vivid details, sensory memories, unstoppable burbling oceans of yearning that rise from the gut, grasp the heart, and squeeze.”


There is one shockingly obvious answer. But it requires us to say two shockingly obvious things. One, Moonlight WAS objectively the best picture of last year. Two, the members of the Academy could viscerally feel it in their bones. But how? How do six-thousand mostly rich, mostly white people suddenly feel what it’s like to be poor, gay and African American? 

If you’re seriously asking that question, then you don’t understand what cinema can do. What it should do. What Moonlight did, in fact, do. For Barry Jenkins’s film isn’t just about being black or gay, or the intersection of the two. It’s about being human. Something that, despite reports to the contrary, all 5,783 members of the Academy are.

Moonlight’s transcendent power derives from the ways in which it conveys love as a series of vivid details, sensory memories, unstoppable burbling oceans of yearning that rise from the gut, grasp the heart, and squeeze. It reveals love to be a series of discrete moments that together add up to something inexplicably powerful. Love is scratching the salt drying behind your ears after a night swim in the ocean. Love is waking up to the wind beating on your shutters like an insistent memory. Love is all that is real and holy and profane. And Moonlight is a film aware of this truth, and capable of expressing it deeply.

Its primary competition, La La Land, doesn’t trust us to recognize these small moments for what they are. Or its actors to deliver even the biggest ones. Damien Chazelle tells us a kiss is true by having his camera twirl around it three times. He’s directed a film that substitutes poses for acting, pretends that melodies are songs, and assumes that we can’t tell the difference between steps and dancing.

If the La La lovers took a dip in the ocean, their clothes would be dry by the next scene. Their dreams of “making it” prove as false and shallow as the stars on Hollywood Blvd. Their memories can only be felt as hectic whirling montages. The only explanation for the lack of chemistry in this intensely hetero-normative film would be if we discovered that Gosling’s character was closeted, for he tries so hard to appear to be in love with a girl, instead of actually being in love with her. 

“The Academy voted for truth.  For Moonlight somehow reminded all 5,783 of its members, that real lovers don’t pull out for money shots. They hold on tight and don’t let go.”


Such pre-digested pabulum may have worked another year. But this year it went up against a film that in every frame, reminds us of what love really is. It’s not convenient, reliable, or even always returned. It’s a force of nature. It’s something you can’t legislate away or express via tap steps. It hurts. And it makes everything else seem small. It’s worth a punch in the face. It’s worth society’s wrath. It’s worth your family’s misunderstanding. 

The “lovers” in La La Land give up when their careers get in the way—when they step on each other’s egos, after spending two hours stepping on each other’s toes. But the lovers in Moonlight wait years for one more embrace. One more moment together.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that lyrical realism inherently trumps movie magic. Ten minutes with Singing in the Rain will remind you what joyous dancing looks like, what full-throated singing sounds like, and, most importantly, what chemistry between actors feels like. That film is alive, Moonlight is alive, La La Land is a stuffed corpse animatronically gyrating in a porno.

What Barry Jenkins understands, and what Damien Chazelle doesn’t, is the difference between shared reality, and cinematic tropes. In a year, during which our President has denied that there is such a thing as objective truth. The Academy voted for the real romance of the Obamas, over the paid-for pornography of the Trumps.  The Academy voted for truth.  For Moonlight somehow reminded all 5,783 of its members, that real lovers don’t pull out for money shots. They hold on tight and don’t let go.

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