A year ago, if you went to sleep at a certain time, you might have woken up confused. You were probably watching the Oscars, waiting for Best Picture to be announced so you could finally go to bed, and once presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read the name off the card — La La Land — you might have turned off the TV.
But then, something like a miracle happened. Just as the people behind La La Land were giving their speeches, producer Justin Horowitz, balding, bearded, and tuxedoed, approached the mike. “There’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture.”
Beatty and Dunaway had been handed the wrong envelope — a backup for Emma Stone’s legitimate Best Actress win for La La Land — and misread the winner. Moonlight director Barry Jenkins and company raced up the steps in shock as the embarrassed presenters tried to explain themselves. It was one of the most shocking, confounding moments in the history of the Academy Awards — and for Miamians, perhaps the most joyful. Somehow, this tiny independent film about a gay, black kid coming of age in Liberty City, written and directed by two guys who grew up there, won the biggest award in entertainment.
That night, Moonlight trod upon several major milestones. It became the second-lowest-grossing film domestically to win Best Picture, behind The Hurt Locker. Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Juan, became the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar. Editor Joi McMillon became the first black woman to be nominated for Best Editing. And the movie itself became the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture.
Arguably, none of this might have happened if not for the #OscarsSoWhite movement and the changes that resulted. For two years in a row, 2015 and 2016, none of the 20 acting nominees were black, Hispanic, Asian, or any race other than white. April Reign, managing editor of BroadwayBlack.com, started the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to protest what she saw as ingrained racism in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).
In response, AMPAS President Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, the organization’s first black president, announced an overhaul of the Academy's membership. New members would be aggressively recruited, while older, whiter members would be shifted to “emeritus” status, their membership intact yet stripped of voting rights. That change was just a tiny first step; Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to representing people of color. But one year after the hashtag made headlines, and even more aggressively than anyone might have thought, those efforts seemingly bore fruit: The smallest, blackest, gayest movie was the victor.
#OscarsSoWhite might have been the catalyst for the industry’s diversity scramble, but Moonlight made its own impression too. For one, it demonstrated that black stories can win major awards without presenting the characters as victims or servants, such as in Twelve Years a Slave or Driving Miss Daisy, or telling tales relating explicitly to racism, such as Selma or Crash. It also immediately preceded a spike in the number of successful black-led films in theaters. In a coincidence for the ages, last year’s Oscars were held only two days after the release of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s instant-classic horror-comedy about a black dude’s visit to his white girlfriend’s parents' house. The film earned more than $33 million its first weekend and nabbed four 2018 Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay for Jordan Peele, and Best Actor for leading man Daniel Kaluuya.
Just less than a year later, Black Panther, the Marvel superhero epic from Creed director Ryan Coogler, has followed up on that success by earning $400 million in just ten days, a feat shared with Jurassic World and beaten only by Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Chadwick Boseman-starring film is projected to pass the $1 billion mark soon, further proving that black-focused films can be not only financially viable but also wildly successful. (Alex R. Hibbert, who starred in Moonlight as Little, AKA young Chiron, also plays a small but pivotal role in Black Panther's closing scenes.)
The trend of successful movies created by and starring black talent isn’t about to end anytime soon. It’s telling that only a few years after Ava DuVernay's Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma barely scraped into the Oscars with a Best Original Song nomination, its director is now about to debut a blockbuster adaption of A Wrinkle in Time in which the protagonist is played by black actor Storm Reid. Her father is played by a white guy, Chris Pine. Ten years ago, Hollywood would’ve balked at that kind of casting. Not anymore.
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Of course, Moonlight’s characters aren’t just black: critics' acceptance of the film’s tender romance between two men reflected a shift in attitudes toward queer films too. The 2005 film Brokeback Mountain was stigmatized and mocked as “the gay cowboy movie” despite being an Oscar frontrunner. But in recent years, LGBTQ stories onscreen have begun to earn more respect and praise. In 2013, the Cannes Film Festival awarded its top prize, the Palme d’Or, to the lesbian drama Blue Is the Warmest Color. Since then, Moonlight has been the most prominent representation of gay men on the awards circuit, and this year, the Northern Italy-set bisexual romance Call Me by Your Name is nominated for three Oscars.
Trans people are also getting a larger spotlight, on TV with shows such as Transparent and Orange Is the New Black, as well as on the big screen. Sean Baker’s pre-Florida Project movie Tangerine, with two trans women as its main characters, earned buzz in the 2015-16 awards season, and the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman, nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film this year, also features a trans protagonist. The film industry remains far from inviting to trans filmmakers, actors, and stories, but projects such as these help pave the way for more representation.
In all of this, we mustn’t forget Moonlight's greatest achievement. Beyond its numerous awards or far-reaching cultural impact, Moonlight is simply the best film ever produced in Miami. When I first saw it, I was shocked that such a visually stunning, structurally daring, tender meditation on the nature of masculinity could have come from the place where I’d grown up. But it did. New York Times critic A. O. Scott called it "so richly evocative of South Florida that it raises the humidity in the theater," and he was right. I saw Chiron playing on the same beaches I’d frequented as a child and riding the same Metrorail and driving on the same roads I travel as an adult. I saw him at home in Liberty City. This wasn’t the Miami that vacationers seek out every winter and spring, the oceanside fantasyland. It was the Miami we live in, the real place with real problems rarely seen on film, rendered more beautifully than any episode of Miami Vice.
Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Mahershala Ali won those golden trophies last year, but they accomplished an even greater feat too: They reflected the Magic City back to its people.