In a momentous occasion, Moonlight came out on top at the 89th Academy Awards. Despite Hollywood’s checkered history around race, religion, and sexuality, the film that was made on a shoestring budget managed to take home three awards on Sunday night. The Academy Awards opened and closed the ceremony with Moonlight winning an award. The film taking home the biggest prize of the night, Best Picture, marks a huge step forward for the Academy. A coming of age film about gay man of color living in Liberty City, not about slavery or the civil rights movement, has expanded the Academy’s recognition of black filmmaking beyond confining storylines or stereotypes.
Best Supporting Actor
Moonlight started the night off strong by winning the very first award, Best Actor in a Supporting Role. That honor goes to Mahershala Ali, who portrayed the character of Juan, a drug dealer who takes it upon himself to act as a father figure to the film’s protagonist, Chiron. Juan accepts Chiron when few others would, not even Chiron’s mother. Ali’s win is amazing for the African American community as well as for Muslims. Ali is the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award. At a time when both African Americans and Muslims have tense relations with American government, the win strokes a chord of good for a change. (As does Ashgar Farhadi’s win for The Salesman, his second Best Foreign Film Oscar.)
Best Adapted Screenplay
The next award brought fortune upon Miami natives Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. The pair won for Best Adapted screenplay. The LGBTQ community sees some recognition, beyond just the film, as McCraney himself is a gay man. The film is an adaptation of McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a play he wrote after his mother’s passing. When Jenkins decided to tackle this project, he started to work with McCraney in order to craft a story that would reflect both Jenkins’ and McCraney’s upbringing in Miami. The writers managed to create a story that felt genuinely like Miami, and is recognizable by Miami natives. It is not the South Beach Miami that Hollywood normally shows in films like Bad Boys or Miami Vice. This was Liberty City, the Miami that Jenkins and McCraney knew, and it reflects in their work.
The night was topped off with Moonlight receiving the highest honor of the Academy Award for Best Picture. This achievement will go down as one of the biggest milestones in Hollywood’s history. Moonlight was the first film with an entire black cast to win that honor. It is the first LGBT film to win best picture, an honor that many believed should have gone over a decade ago to Brokeback Mountain. The film is landmark achievement not just for social politics, but film making in general. It had the lowest budget of any film nominated this year, with a budget of just $1.5 million. It is second lowest grossing film domestically to win Best Picture. The academy proved that small independent film deserves as much of a chance as bug studio films. Credit also goes to Brad Pitt and his production company, Plan B Entertainment, for getting the project off the ground. This is the company’s third best picture win, previous winners being 12 Years a Slave (2013) and The Departed (2007). Pitt’s company has history of supporting Black cinema and LGBT artist, with films like 12 Years a Slave, Selma, and The Normal Heart. This tiny little independent representing a side of Miami normally unseen in film did what no one thought was possible. When history has shown that Hollywood will not recognize black or gay films when push comes to shove, in fear of political backlash, Moonlight, a film that is both gay and black, went home the champion of the night.
If you have yet to see Moonlight in theaters, now is your chance to go and see it on the big screen. Moonlight will soon be expanded to over 1500 theaters. It may be coming to FIU soon, too, so stay tuned!
Daniel Valladares is an intern for the FIU Film Studies Program for the Spring 2017 semester. Daniel is seeking a Film Studies Certificate as an English Major.