Barry Jenkins has already made history. He became the first African American to win both the New York and the Los Angeles prizes for Best Director. He became the first African American to have a film he wrote and directed land in all three major categories at the Oscars. All of that because it is, by most accounts, the best film of 2016. In my own opinion, I’ve only seen two masterpieces this year — one didn’t get nominated and the other is Moonlight.
Look into the backgrounds of the Best Director winners in the past ten years. Not one of them that has overcome the kind of circumstances Jenkins has. As this New York Times piece about Jenkins and his co-writer on Moonlight, Tarell McCraney, describes:
Liberty City, one of the poorest sections of Miami and almost entirely black, is geographically tiny, little more than the housing projects and the blocks surrounding them. But it is also tiny in that particular way that poverty and extreme racial isolation build formidable, and virtually unscalable, walls. Liberty City was not just their neighborhood. It was their universe.
Both men were born to mothers who had their first children when they were teenagers. Both saw their mothers become H.I.V. positive after falling victim to the crack epidemic that overtook their community. Both were taken away from their mothers and bounced around; caregivers, related and not, took them in. They both knew what it was like to have the water turned off for lack of payment, to go to school without deodorant because there was no money to buy it.
Yet their family members, including their mothers, pushed school and a love of reading; their neighbors and educators fought for them and encouraged their talents. The Liberty City of their childhood was at once a place that buckled under the rages of crack but also, defiantly, maintained a cultural richness and sense of community that nurtured and inspired the two men — it was a place that both contained and freed them. And it is the way that “Moonlight” captures that tension — between the beauty and the struggle — that makes the film so powerful.
Black artists in Hollywood have to do twice as much just to get their foot half-way in the door while white men can breeze through, get lauded for every film they make and continue to make films even when one of their films flop. It is a factory of privilege and entitlement — and it is a world that belongs only to them. When you start out life with the basics covered you mostly have freedom to explore the imaginary worlds of movie making and all of the possibilities therein. People who come up from difficult lives want — need — those stories to be told with more urgency. Yet even still, Moonlight never feels bogged down by obligation.
The DGA Awards will be held next week where most expected Damien Chazelle to win easily, continuing a massive sweep through awards season for La La Land. If all goes according to plan, he will be the youngest winner in Oscar history and he will also be the first American-born director to win since Kathryn Bigelow in 2009. Chazelle’s La La Land, in addition to making lots of money at the box office, will be seen by the industry the way Birdman was seen, the way The Revenant was seen — as originality preserved in the era of effects-driven films. The Oscars are often a throwback that way, a museum that likes to preserves the old way of movie making — the nuts and bolts and human way. Chazelle’s film also celebrates a time in film history when musicals saved the day from the treacherous world outside. 2016 will likely be La La land’s year, even with the many backlash articles that have been appearing, like those in the New York Times, the New York Post, USA Today, etc. The Oscars don’t exist to right the wrongs of society but to prop up an age-old tradition. That tradition, even throughout the glorious eight years under Barack Obama, favors men, mostly white but not always. Alejandro G. Inarritu made DGA history by winning back-to-back for Best Director and before him, Alfonso Cuaron won, and before that Ang Lee won. But conspicuously absent this array of cultural icons is the African American director.
I don’t believe the system is an intentionally “racist” factory — it is just about exclusivity. It’s a club you’re either let into or kept out of, and all too often black directors are kept out of it. To date, there have only been three black DGA nominees at all, and the first was Lee Daniels for Precious in 2009. Yes, from 1948 to 2009 not a single black nominee. Steve McQueen was nominated for 12 Years a Slave in 2013, and now Barry Jenkins for Moonlight.
In the past, whenever a film involving civil rights or racism won Best Picture, its director never has — that’s true of In the Heat of the Night, Driving Miss Daisy, Crash and 12 Years a Slave. It’s as though they’re saying “We’re doing this for history’s sake but this other movie has better direction.” Only with Moonlight they can’t really do that. In fact, the Oscars could split in the opposite direction with La La Land winning Best Picture and Jenkins taking Best Director.
Moonlight is a perfect film. From start to finish, it is lean and elegant visual storytelling that relies very little on dialogue. Three vignettes of the ordinary/extraordinary life of a young gay black man navigating survival, bullying, toughing up in a hyper masculine culture and eventually letting go and freeing up his sexuality. Aside from Arrival, which impacted me greatly for personal reasons, there isn’t a more emotionally moving film this year than Moonlight. Jenkins lets us see the world from Chiron’s perspective — the circumstances he faced and the people he met that helped shape the man he would become.
I don’t expect Jenkins will beat Chazelle. If there is universe where that’s possible, it’s remote. The other side of the story is the far more familiar one. Young white directors like Chazelle are encouraged, awarded, celebrated and given everything Hollywood has to offer because they represent what so many of the voters want to be. A whiz kid who came straight outta Harvard to make Whiplash as a short, then Whiplash as a feature, which won Oscars, then La La Land which has proceeded to break records. It’s not Chazelle’s fault he’s so talented. But he has more than that talent on his side. The arc of his success reflects back to the industry what the industry wants to see, in both the filmmaker and the final film. That is the goal they reach for each and every year. That is who they always wanted to be: a boy wonder who hit a hole in one out of the gate.
I only write this piece to illustrate that we don’t even entertain the notion Barry Jenkins can win this thing, and the only reason we don’t is simply that the film is “too black and too gay.” Only two films with an LGBT story at their center have won or come close to winning — Midnight Cowboy (obliquely) and Brokeback Mountain, which did lose to Crash, famously. Moonlight addresses both the black and the gay experience and does so with such elegance and grace it has won a slew of critics awards without any sort of white-guilt tag attached to it. It is the one movie almost everyone can agree is great. And it is great. Poetic, honest, beautiful, romantic, heartbreaking, lyrical, brilliantly acted across the board, and one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
This is not a knock on the presumed winner. You don’t cover the Oscar race for nearly twenty years and still be wishing for things that can’t be. This is just a way to start a conversation. A conversation that one day might have a declarative sentence with an exclamation point put on the end of it.
This is a great year for moviemaking and a great year for the Oscar race. All of these directors are worthy winners. Chazelle has the wind at his back. DGA membership is almost 15,000. That’s a massive consensus that has to be built in a ridiculously short amount of time. There’s not much to complain about when a modern musical triumphs, even if it does not quite fit with the charged political atmosphere that unexpectedly surrounds it. But if by some fluke Barry Jenkins wins? That would be an extraordinary event for extraordinary times.