When I first saw the trailer for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight in 2016 I was stunned, touched, and moved. I became completely obsessed with the trailer, rewatching it countless times as I counted down the days until I could see the film. I was captivated by Nicholas Britell’s slightly haunting classical score, the breathing-taking cinematography, and the story of a man discovering his sexuality and figuring out who he is. Moonlight shocked the world when it upset La La Land and won the Oscar for Best Picture, its moment to shine was somewhat tainted by the infamous faux pas of the wrong envelope being read out and the cast and crew of La La Land getting up on stage before realising there had been a mistake. It was shot on a relatively modest budget of $1.5–4 million and directed by a then relatively unknown director, Barry Jenkins who had only directed one very low budget indie feature film, Medicine for Melancholy. Not many predicted Moonlight would win when put up against industry favourite La La Land which was directed by young director, Damien Chazielle, who had plenty of industry buzz after Whiplash won three Oscars in 2015. A film in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play idealistic actors and musicians in Hollywood finding love and following their dreams seemed like a shoo-in.
History seems doomed to repeat itself. Though let’s hope this time the wrong envelope isn’t read out again. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name is already receiving Oscar buzz after its premiere at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and is almost certainly a shoo-in for Best Picture nomination. Damien Chazelle also has a new feature film being released this year and like If Beale Street Could Talk will most certainly receive a Best Picture nomination as well. Once again both Jenkins (aged 38) and Chazelle (33) are being pitted against each other as the hip, relatively young directors ready to take over the old crusty white men at the top in Hollywood. Following on from the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the #MeToo movement, awards ceremonies such as the Oscars and Emmys are increasingly irrelevant and are desperate to bring in new young members and viewers.
12 Years a Slave looked like the beginning of a small but significant change in the voting of the Oscars. In a pretty white Oscars, it seemed like the token Black film that would help all other Black films and filmmakers advance. Films by black directors were rarely nominated for Best Picture and studios rarely gave money to black filmmakers for big budget films. Black filmmakers were active and have been active throughout the history of the Oscars (and before) but other than Spike Lee they rarely got recognition. Even Lee has only been nominated for two Oscars and never won throughout his three decades of filmmaking. Steve McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave in 2014. Problem solved right? Now we know that black people also make great filmmakers. Right? Wrong. In 2015, for the second consecutive year, all twenty acting nominees and four out of the five directors nominated were white. Former activist and former attorney April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, a campaign followed and here we are three years later and things were starting to look up. The next year Moonlight won Best Picture and Hidden Figures was nominated for the category.
Since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2016, the Oscar has invited hundreds of women and people of colour to join its voting body of over 7000 members with a goal of “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” While we can expect If Beale Street Could Talk to get a nomination next year as well as Spike Lee’s Black KKKlansman and Steve McQueen’s Widows, diversity is the least of the Academy’s problems. As long as it continues to only slap sexual abusers on the wrists and fosters a toxic environment for marginalised people real change will not come. Not unless the institution radically overturns its foundation but for now we’ll watch as it celebrates itself by rewarding a few tokens while continuing to be hypocritical.