Oscar Sunday is a guilty pleasure of mine. The fashion, the films, the fuss. I normally spend it curled up on a couch with my mom eating take-out from our favorite restaurant in Dallas. This was the first year I watched without her, but I was still excited to reward myself with ice cream and E! red carpet coverage after a long week.
The 89th Academy Awards turned out to be more of an academic experience than I would have liked for a peaceful Sunday night. This class has taught me to consume culture through a different perspective, which instantly kicked into gear as I watched the elegant charade. Recently, the Academy has been scrutinized for its lack of diversity in nominations by the #OscarsSoWhite trend, a topic that was still relevant given the current political climate.
I began to take note of subtleties. What movies were nominated? Who presented and won? How were racial experiences depicted in films? I was pleased to see Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali win Best Supporting Actress and Actor as both were excellent in their respective movies. Nonetheless, the evening was predominately white until the Best Picture presentation when a Steve Harvey-Miss Universe debacle unfolded. La La Land was wrongfully named, the cast was interrupted, and everyone was informed that Moonlight had actually won.
Moonlight’s triumph struck me. I had seen the film in January with little background knowledge and felt the weight of its impactful, raw story by the end. Upon further analysis, several things stuck out to me. First, there is a clear “vulnerability of black bodies” throughout the movie, as A. O. Scott noted in his review. The main character Chiron is perpetually tormented by violence, drug addiction, crime, and captivity. These threaten his safety, wellbeing, happiness, and ability to connect with others. As a boy, he struggles to stand up for himself; as a teen, he struggles to accept his identity; as a man, he struggles to embrace his past.
Second, the film uses and then dismantles African-American stereotypes about masculinity to advance the plot. Chiron’s father figure best embodies this tactic. As a drug dealer, Juan represents a typical role model of masculinity in the black community. However, Juan comes to provide comfort, stability, and support for Chiron through his personal commitment and his girlfriend’s motherly love. This presence becomes an important escape for Chiron as he ages.
But mostly, I noticed the lack of whiteness. The entire movie is about the experience of a black, poor, gay boy who is completely removed from white culture. There are no primary white characters and it is set in a predominately African-American community. Thus, there was a sharp contrast between the film’s authenticity and the outside world that praised it. In the short amount of time that the Academy has recognized black films, only one before Moonlight ever won. This last-minute win was rightfully deserved in my mind. But more importantly, this movie’s victory signifies the importance of racial commentary that is true to the black community and removed from juxtaposition to whiteness.