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The State of the Race: Best Picture will go to La La Land, but Beware of Moonlight

Hidden Figures has become an incredibly popular film wherever it screens. Had it gotten an earlier start, it might have had all of the nominations it would need to challenge La La Land for Best Picture, as it won the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding ensemble. Other than it not getting a SAG Ensemble nomination, La La Land has played the game to win. It was at Venice and Telluride. It also made the rounds to various film festivals bringing Emma Stone and sometimes Damien Chazelle to far flung places like the Hamptons. That is playing for keeps, and it’s what you have to do. It helps if you’re a well-known movie star people will turn out to see. If Emma Stone is there to show La La Land, it’s going to get a lot more people eager to see it. For this film, other than the SAG miss, everything went exactly right. That is, until this last part where, like most Oscar frontrunners, it got hit with a backlash. That has been happening more and more in the new normal of the Oscar race – Boyhood is a good example of that. The Revenant. American Hustle. But even films like The Artist, The Hurt Locker, and Slumdog Millionaire went through their own versions of backlashes. The job of the publicist is to mitigate this as best they can. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. Probably, I’m betting, La La Land will dance through theirs because it has too big of a lead to slow it down now. It won two sound guild awards last night, though it did not win the Writers Guild for original screenplay. That went to Moonlight.

The New Yorker just put out a cover that seems to speak to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and boycott, the Academy’s overhauling of membership, and how the nominees changed this year. It’s important to note that it’s an insult to say Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Mahershala Ali, Ruth Negga, Naomie Harris, Octavia Spencer, and Dev Patel are all nominated because of the hashtag, and to imply that they wouldn’t be otherwise. No one did them any favors. Rather, the mostly white bloggers, critics and industry voters opened their minds up a bit more this year — and trust me, enjoy it while it lasts because it isn’t likely to go down this way time in the near future. Change must always be forced. These films – Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion and especially Moonlight – are films that should have been acknowledged anyway. But the preference is always and has always been to the default of the white narrative. Watch the film I Am Not Your Negro for a much more eloquent way of explaining this bizarre phenomenon, which goes hand in hand with “white guilt.” It would do these nominees a great disservice to say they are there because of white guilt. It’s much better to say they aren’t there because the voters themselves are mostly white and they pick stories that tell them who they are.

The Screen Actors Guild is way ahead of the other industry guilds when it comes to inclusiveness. The Producers Guild is getting there. The Directors Guild, Writers Guild, and Academy are mostly still ruled by the white dynamic and trust me, just bringing this up makes them ANGRY. “It should be about the best film not what color the filmmakers are!” They don’t seem to realize that it’s all tied in together – taste is informed by experience. Experience is informed by identity. The real problem white voters have is laid out in I Am Not Your Negro beautifully – we can’t rid ourselves of the shame and thus, we tend to avoid stories that make us feel bad about who we are.

At any rate, I feel a lot of last minute support for Moonlight. Buzz like that is something you can’t really manufacture – it’s built on sentiment and word of mouth. Stats wise, Moonlight, in a split vote with La La Land taking Director and a whole bunch of techs, makes sense. Moonlight does have a SAG Ensemble nomination. It also won the Globe. It did not win the BAFTA. It did not win the DGA or PGA or even the SAG, but that doesn’t necessarily mean on a preferential ballot it won’t pull through. I am not sure I have the guts to actually lay down that predictio,n but it’s something I can’t help but feel. Some upsets you feel. Strong men also cry.

My Best Picture survey experiment on Facebook (and I’ll do another one in the coming days) told me that not only did Moonlight win every round, but for people who didn’t really choose Moonlight or La La Land it was Moonlight that tracked ahead of La La Land down ballot, meaning those votes for films like Fences and Hacksaw Ridge and Hell or High Water and Hidden Figures tended to go for Moonlight. Arrival, which came in third in votes, split them. Obviously I know that people would assume my friends on Facebook are Moonlight-friendly. And that could be true. But that group isn’t made up mostly of readers here – it is a cross-section of people who don’t necessarily read this site or follow the Oscar race at all. So I found it interesting. I don’t know what it means – it’s just interesting. Maybe it means that if there was one more week Moonlight would be pulling ahead. As it is, with a worldwide take of $340 million and a publicity team that is in it to win it, you can’t really escape La La Land’s reach, backlash or no backlash.

When the dust settles this after Oscar night, I’ll always remember this year. Winners and nominees come and go. Just as presidents come and go. I barely remember many of the films that enter the race because most years they seem like what my daughter would call “the same movie.” Not only are they almost exclusively about the white experience, they’re exclusively about one kind of person within that population. So it was, for me, a much more interesting race this year to hear so many other stories from different points of view. There is not a bad film in the bunch.

This was an historic year for the Oscars. I hope that it means things are going to be more progressive from here on out. Maybe we’ll start seeing foreign language films up for Best Picture. Maybe documentaries. Top to bottom, category by category, from the features on down to the shorts – the Academy did good this year. They picked an array of brilliant work from artists who share the collective experience of being artists keeping the art of film alive and kicking.