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The State of the Race: Meet the New Academy’s Class of 2017

The Academy Awards last night was spectacular in the way few things are. A film made for nothing won Best Picture. A film many deemed “too black” and “too gay” to win. But it won over voters by sheer charm. At the same time, La La Land took home awards for its director, the youngest ever, and its talented composer. How lucky for them to be there to win those. All of them have bright futures ahead of them. For La La Land to lose will turn out to be better than to win. You’ll all have to just trust me on that one.

Despite the mistakes, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences listened when the public protested. They took major steps to change their own perceptions of what defines a film. We saw Amazon and Netflix and CBS Films in the game like never before. We can see a wide open future ahead, and an Academy that’s ready to face it. We should all welcome the new class of 2017.

There was a noticeable shift in the ether heading into Oscar night. Readers of this site already know what I think the reasons for the Moonlight upset were as I’ve been writing about them for a while now. Mainly it was that I had and our own Rob had conducted a few preferential ballot polls. I did mine on Facebook and he did his here and around the web. The results were the same every time, 1. Moonlight, 2. La La Land and 3. Arrival. At this point you know there will be a recount because no film won the requisite number on the first round. Every film that wasn’t those three then got redistributed. So Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Hell or High Water, Hacksaw Ridge all had their number one votes taken off and their number 2 votes put into piles. They keep redistributing each of the ballots with the least amount of votes. What I found and what Rob found was that people mostly kept putting Moonlight ahead on the ballot of La La Land. More men liked Moonlight. More women liked La La Land. More men voting would mean more votes for Moonlight.

I think Moonlight would have upset La La Land even without the so-called backlash because Moonlight is a film with characters you root for, La La Land is not. The election transformed us into having a strong need for that kind of resolution. The more Trump terrorized us daily, the less inclined we were to embrace a film with a complex ending like La La Land has. And yes, it was met with many vicious hit pieces that accused it of being white propaganda or fascism, which were attacked right back by (mostly white) film critics who bristle at any other voices encroaching in their territory. Finally, there a few notable voices from writers of color – black, Asian and Arab who took issue with this film really dominating in a year with so much diversity. None of this is La La Land’s fault, it should be emphasized but rather the time in which the film found itself – many voices crying out in horror, terror and protestation at what has just happened to America. If La La Land asked us to travel back in time when whites really did rule Hollywood unfettered? It mirrors what Trump is asking us to do: travel back to time before the Civil Rights movement — I mean this literally. That is exactly what Steve Bannon wants to do. So it became harder and harder for an awards community to support a film they felt made them uncomfortable. No doubt had Hillary Clinton won, everyone would be celebrating La La Land’s victory.

But still, there is no denying that Moonlight out of Telluride was the most beloved. It was even more beloved than La La Land. It swept through the critics awards, and the Spirit Awards – anyone who watched it fell hard for it. But La La Land had the momentum early and that momentum was interrupted, I think, by real life. Moonlight speaks more to the real life around us than to us to any kind of rationalize escapism from that life.

They key take-away from this year’s race is what changed and what the stayed the same. I would make the argument that the new members, many of them young and people of color, DID impact the voting for several reasons — they probably filled out all of the categories, where we’re sort of used to voters opting out of some of them. They are a more plugged in, tuned in group of people who are more aware of what is happening the world around them. And we’re all becoming a bigger and bigger hive mind. Thus, a film’s popularity will have to do battle with that hive mind.

What we have now in front of us is a new class of Academy member, one that might vote for unexpected films or contenders. I think that’s why there were so many out of character choices like Suicide Squad for makeup. That means pundits are going to be shaken up too – and honestly, if there was one thing the awards community could use more of is more voices from people of color, more diversity and yes, more engagement and passion for an industry that can and should and will include them rather than exclude them.

Both La La Land and Moonlight’s filmmakers taught us last night what it was like to win and to lose. The Moonlight folks were sort of depressed and didn’t want to take away the win from their friends. The La La Land folks graciously and generously handed over their trophies to Moonlight, which had to have been one of the hardest things they’ll ever have to do. Awards season is a bear. It will strip you of all dignity so that you’ll wonder why you ever got into the film business at all. This is why Ben Affleck wants nothing to do with it and most will opt out if given the chance. It’s a long ugly trek to the win and sometimes you campaign all year only to get a massive letdown at the end.

Nothing could have prepared the room for a Denzel Washington loss. It felt like it would be one of the big wins of the night. I don’t know how you sit there, at his stage of his career, after having made Fences, for which he was hand-picked by August Wilson to direct. People made wisecracks about his facial expression but to me he looked like he was kicked in the stomach. I hate that look – it’s an honest look and it exposes a contest for winners and losers for exactly what it is. We can lose graciously, it’s true, unless we’ve had a history of being dicked around. I hope that he knows what he accomplished with Fences. I hope he knows he left us in awe.

Finally, I sat next to one of the animators for The Red Turtle. His wife asked to borrow my charger for her phone. He and I were the only ones dancing around in our seats to Justin Timberlake’s opening number. He didn’t really speak English that well but enough to tell me who he was why he was here. He told me he was hoping the Red Turtle would win but, he said, “Zootopia Zootopia Zootopia” just kept winning. When it came time to call Animated Feature he took out his camera and aimed it at the stage. They announced, and he said aloud, “Zootopia!” But he smiled anyway and kept taking pictures of the winners. He and his wife stayed for the whole show. They were so pleasant to sit next to and chat with. This election was so terrible all it made me want to do is never leave my home, not ever. And yet, sitting in the Dolby with the celebration going on, the impossible and improbable taking place all at once, the people from Japan to my left thawed out my bitter old heart. It was impossible not to smile walking out of there, even if I did miss the final award.

While driving home Marshall Flores called me on the phone to tell me “Moonlight fucking won.” I couldn’t believe it. It seemed as impossible then as it always had. It reminded me that we pundits are too fixated on predicting the Oscars that we close the door on possibilities way too soon. As I flew down the 101, missing my exit, I was reminded of those possibilities, of a fast changing world, of a youth, of dreamers and yes, of Moonlight.