On Sunday night the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, amazingly, named Moonlight the Best Picture of 2016. It was a victory made all the more stunning by the circumstances: after La La Land was initially announced as the winner, producer Jordan Horowitz told a shocked audience that Moonlight had actually won the award. A hush passed over the crowd, before eventually giving way to raucous applause. Jimmy Kimmel cracked a joke about Steve Harvey, Warren Beatty meekly apologized, and Barry Jenkins, who could hardly contain his surprise, gave a speech that put a period on the whole night. “Very clearly, even in my dreams this could not be true,” he said. “But to hell with dreams. I’m done with it, ‘cause this is true.”
After a year of controversy, the Oscars ceremony seemed to signal that the Academy’s efforts to improve diversity are working — at least where black artists are concerned. But let’s be plain here: it’s not enough, not when women and other marginalized groups are still underrepresented. The progress made on Sunday night came after years of sustained criticism that forced the industry to improve itself. Until it’s not surprising that the best picture of the year actually wins Best Picture, there will always be work to be done.
The progress we saw on Sunday came after years of criticism
The Academy did manage to set a record even before the ceremony started, nominating six black actors for Oscar glory. For his role in Moonlight, Mahershala Ali took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, becoming the first Muslim actor ever to win an Academy Award. That fact alone made his one of the most important and politically relevant wins of the night.
And the milestones kept coming in. Viola Davis’ win for Best Supporting Actress in Fences made her the first black actress to earn an acting Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar: Hollywood’s triple crown. Between Fences, Moonlight, and director Ezra Edelman’s Best Documentary winner O.J.: Made in America, the show produced more black winners than ever before. And by the end of the night, GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis cheered Moonlight for becoming the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture.
But while we should celebrate these artists, we should temper our appreciation for the institution that finally hit these milestones. After all, how laudable is it really that more than three black actors won an Oscar in a single night, when the recipients are still overwhelmingly white? How can we cheer when deserving films that center LGBTQ lives still struggle to even compete? Meanwhile, let’s not forget the holes that still need filling. Lion’s Dev Patel was the first Indian actor in 13 years to receive a nomination, and the 13th Asian actor to get a nod overall. Rodrigo Prieto was the only Latinx nominee of the night for his work on Silence. Producer Joanna Natasegara was the only Oscar winner of Asian descent to win a competitive Academy Award, and, as my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany pointed out, one of only four women outside of the acting categories to take home an award during the event.
Most telling is that there was shock over Moonlight’s win at all. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood held La La Land as the obvious favorite. Its 14 nominations tied All About Eve and Titanic, and both of those films won Best Picture. Damien Chazelle’s movie took top honors at award season shows like the Critics Choice Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, and the Golden Globes. And since it’s an escapist fantasy about Hollywood dreamers, it was seen as catnip for Academy voters. But as Vulture and Vox both point out, Moonlight is by far the more culturally relevant film, and after a year of public shaming and attempts at a cultural reboot in the Academy itself, it’s entirely possible that voters pushed harder for the film that seemed more in sync with our current political moment.
Critics and audiences need to keep pushing back to see even better representation
None of this suggests that Moonlight winning Best Picture shouldn’t be celebrated. The film is a moving, remarkable triumph, and deserved every award it won. But it won not just because it’s a stellar piece of art, but also because the Academy has been forced to reevaluate itself and its lackluster record of honoring work from non-white actors and filmmakers. That’s a sign that movements like #OscarsSoWhite are working, but rather than back off, it means that critics and audiences need to push that much harder. It means that while Hollywood still needs to do better in both making and honoring the work of people who aren’t straight cisgender white men, that improvement is possible — if the public demands it. And it means that until more perspectives are celebrated for their work in front of and behind the camera, scrutiny and protest will always be necessary.
Update 9pm ET: The article has been updated to clarify that Viola Davis’ triple crown is for acting.