By Gary Thompson
Philadelphia Daily News
The “La La Land” Oscar-nominated song “Audition” contains an ode to unfulfilled dreams as an actress accustomed to trying and failing sings “Here’s to the mess we make.”
You said it, sister.
“Audition” didn’t win for best song, and as it turned out “La La Land” didn’t win for best picture, even though presenter Faye Dunaway announced that it had, sending “La La Land” producers to the stage for a victory celebration that ended abruptly when the terse accountants from Price Waterhouse let it be known the real winner was “Moonlight.”
But the mess they made, while it constitutes a kind of history, should not obscure the larger history that “Moonlight” made.
It’s the first movie about a gay character to win best picture, a feat denied recently to “Brokeback Mountain,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Milk.” And as Aisha Harris points out on Slate, it’s also the first best picture winner about a black character (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “12 Years a Slave”) that is not about racism.
The movie, adapted by Barry Jenkins from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, follows a fatherless black child named Chiron who grows up in a poor Miami neighborhood, son to a mother (Naomie Harris, nominated for best supporting actress) addicted to drugs.
He is gay, and, without a family, defenseless against a homophobic crowd of bullies he encounters at school and on the streets. But he’s not entirely alone – he finds a surrogate father in a local drug dealer (Mahershala Ali). Their brief but moving relationship is defined by a lovely scene in which the older man takes Chiron to the ocean and teaches him to swim on his own, a poetic moment with profound implications.
This scene almost certainly won Ali best supporting actor and no doubt went a long way toward securing the best picture award for “Moonlight.”
That Oscar is an honor for “Moonlight,” but “Moonlight” is also a gift to Hollywood, which has endured a few years of stinging criticism for its lack of diversity among nominees. Here is the sort of story mainstream movies rarely tell, acclaimed as the best picture of the year.
And while that may seem like a trivial thing against the problems that people like Chiron face each day, McCraney, who based the story on his own life, said the validation is important.
“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don’t see themselves; we are trying to show you, and us. So thank you,” he said, in accepting his award for best adapted screenplay, along with Jenkins.
Jenkins said the movie reaches out to “all the people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you, that your life isn’t reflected.”
The night made history in other ways with a record number of black nominees and winners: Ali, Jenkins, Viola Davis (“Fences”) and Ezra Edelman (“O.J. Made in America”).
For those who saw Oscar night as a hurried attempt to right recent wrongs, keep in mind how long it takes a movie to be made – Jenkins worked on “Moonlight” for eight years. When I asked “Hidden Figures” writer-director Ted Melfi if Hollywood green-lighted his movie as a response to criticism, he laughed.
“Hollywood is like a glacier. It doesn’t do anything quickly. It can’t. ”
In other words: Here’s to “Moonlight,” and the mess Hollywood didn’t make.
Gary Thompson is a movie critic for the Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.