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La La Land v. Moonlight: Race and the 2016 Oscars

If you haven’t already, be sure and give this a read. It’s an account from an actor of color about how he can only ever seem to get roles as terrorists. Yet casting directors continue to tell him with a straight face that his ethnicity is a godsend and he’s guaranteed to keep getting work. After all, white people are totally screwed even though it’s their faces on all the posters because reverse racism.

This is not an uncommon story, and it’s outrageous how we still have to talk about this in goddamn 2017. But then the author says (in the headline, no less) that if La La Land wins at the Oscars over Moonlight, he’s “done”. And I know he’s not alone in this sentiment.

To do this would be every bit as short-sighted and asinine as packing up and going home in the event that Moonlight wins.

I’ve already said my piece about Moonlight, and I may have to give the film a second viewing because it feels like everyone else is talking about a different movie entirely. From where I was sitting, the sound mixing, camerawork, and editing were all so overdone that some scenes were incomprehensible. Yet it did have some very powerful moments about parts of society (the poor, the LGBT, the people of color, etc.) ignored too often by the mainstream, and I completely respect that.

By contrast, I LOVED La La Land. Absolutely loved it. I thought it was a technical marvel that got me laughing and crying, singing and dancing, happy to be alive and eager to go out and start writing. Yet it’s also a film about a white guy (who can’t sing to save his life, by the way) who wants to be a jazz musician, and I can certainly see how it looks bad from a race perspective.

I’m rooting for La La Land, but I’m nonetheless sincerely thrilled that Moonlight also got the nomination. It’s great that this year’s Oscar pool is big enough for both. Because seriously, do you remember last year?

So many high-profile smash hits from people of color in 2015 and not a one was nominated. Every single acting nominee was white. The only talents to get nominated for Creed and Straight Outta Compton were white. The world lost its shit. And AMPAS responded, saying that they would be taking steps to boost diversity among its voting members. Only a year later, what happened?

Moonlight got nominated (eight times, including Best Picture). Hidden Figures got nominated (three times, including Best Picture). Fences got nominated (four times, including Best Picture). Lion got nominated (six times, including Best Picture). Seven of the 20 acting nominees are people of color. Moreover, look at the more obscure categories. Look at the live-action shorts (Enemies Within and Silent Nights), the documentary films (I Am Not Your Negro, O.J.: Made in America, 13th, and Fire at Sea), and the documentary shorts (4.1 Miles, The White Helmets, and Watani, My Homeland). Clearly, the Academy has a focus on immigrants and people of color, certainly more than last year.

So should the Social Justice Warriors shut up and be grateful for what they have? Of course not. Especially given some other Best Picture nominees — Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge (six nominations apiece, including Best Picture for each) were both more overtly white than La La Land by a HUGE fucking margin.

The point is this: We’re talking about systemic racism as old as the system itself. That’s not going to go away if Moonlight wins. And we’re also talking about a movement of equality and diversity that’s been steadily building power and relevance through all levels of society since at least the 1960s. That’s not going to go away if La La Land wins. We’re talking about something that’s bigger than any one movie, any one award, any one ceremony, and any one year.

To say “Moonlight lost, so fuck the whole system, it’s all for nothing” would be every bit as childish and stupid as saying “Moonlight won, so racism in Hollywood is done forever”. To take either stance would be to ignore how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. No matter what happens on Sunday, THIS WON’T BE OVER.

If you’re happy that Moonlight won (or Hidden Figures, or Fences) and you’re happy that every single acting category went to people of color, that’s great. Use that to talk about how these particular talents can go on to bigger and better things and we can keep the trend going. If you’re upset that La La Land (or Hacksaw Ridge, or Manchester by the Sea) won and you’re disgusted that Meryl Streep walked away with her umpteenth Oscar for that Florence Foster Jenkins bullshit, that’s great. Use that to talk about how we still have a long ways to go in making sure that Hollywood properly recognizes great talents from different backgrounds. No matter what happens, recognize that the only reason we’ve come so far and the only way we’re going to get farther is by staying vigilant and making some noise.

On a final note, consider this year’s Oscars as one last swift kick in the ass goodbye to the dumpster fire that was 2016. It was an awful, wretched year full of heartbreak and confusion. If you made it through to 2017, chances are good that’s it’s because there was something in that year that gave you some amount of joy. And if it was a movie that gave you hope and enlightenment enough to power you through — regardless of whether that film wins or if it was even nominated — no one can take that away from you.

The 89th Annual Academy Awards are happening this Sunday night. I hope you’ll join me back here for my annual liveblog.

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