Is there a chance that Damien Chazelle’s candy-colored musical La La Land won’t win the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday? Of course there is. There’s also a chance a plague of frogs will rain down on Hollywood Boulevard and spoil everybody’s red-carpet moment: “What are you wearing?” “Kermit!” There’s even a chance Meryl Streep will skip the ceremony and stay home to indulge her love of football by rewatching the 1969 Super Bowl, when men were men and she was a bubbly New York Jets tryout cheerleader. Nothing in this world is an absolute lock, and presumably Chazelle knows it.
Assuming La La Land does win, though, lots of people will start grumbling like cranky washing machines before Jimmy Kimmel says goodnight. (See Sigmund Freud, Oscar And Its Discontents: still his masterpiece, it’s the definitive text.) Most likely, the grumbling will be especially loud from fans of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which is plenty of reviewers’ pick for the real best picture of the year. It’s also bold in all the ways La La Land isn’t: African American, queer, and bereft of marquee-name stars on a par with LLL’s Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
Let’s pretend we can set aside the racial and cultural politics lurking in ‘La La Land’ going head-to-head with 'Moonlight’ on Oscar night.
If any of this reminds you of the warmup to a rerun of the flapperoo over Adele beating out Beyonce at the Grammys, that’s understandable. But there are also reasons it shouldn’t. For one thing, Bey needed a 23rd Grammy to certify her world dominance the way Stalin needed Lithuania to certify his. Unlike Lemonade, Moonlight could really use the extra publicity, you know? For another, the Grammys do have a relatively decent track record when it comes to recognizing African American artists, the Album of the Year category included. Academy voters, on the other hand, are still picking OscarsSoWhite hashtags out of their teeth after 2016’s backlash against nobody nonwhite getting nominated in any major category for the second straight year in a row.
So far as this year’s nominations go, #OscarsSoSorry is clearly the industry’s panicked reply. Moonlight is up for eight in all, including nods to Jenkins for directing and writing. Hidden Figures and Fences are also in contention for Best Picture, along with acting nominations for Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) and both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (Fences). Even Fences playwright August Wilson, who’s been dead since 2005, is vying with Jenkins for Best Adapted Screenplay, the first time two African Americans have competed in that category. With any luck, the next time that happens, both contenders will be living, or is that too much to ask?
True, Davis has to put up with the insult of being demoted to a Best Supporting Actress slot when she’s clearly Fences’s female lead. Hidden Figures’s Taraji P. Henson has even more right to be steamed that her terrific performance didn’t get recognized at all. What, to make room for Dame Meryl’s gazillionth Best Actress nod? But beyond that, there’s a growing frustration that even when African Americans get nominated for—or even win—Oscars, they’re generally confined to the acting categories, along with flukes like Prince’s double win for Purple Rain (song and score) way back when. Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture are prizes still out of reach—or were until this year.
Complicating things further, while La La Land may have lots of virtues, Chazelle’s white-boy take on jazz (a primarily African American art form, in case you’ve forgotten) isn’t one of them. Gosling’s piano-fondling honky is the one who cherishes the music’s integrity so much he’s practically got to defend its virginity from black musician John Legend, who eventually deflowers both it and Gosling by inducing him to go commercial. Almost the only other African American performers we see are in the club band that Gosling talks right over when he’s mansplaining jazz to Emma Stone, which is a) funny but b) a lousy way to educate moviegoers, as opposed to Stone.
Just for the hell of it, though, let’s pretend we can set aside the racial and cultural politics lurking in La La Land going head-to-head with Moonlight on Oscar night. Strictly in terms of quality, which one is more deserving? Oh, Moonlight, most likely, and so what? The Academy Awards have never been about rewarding artistry for artistry’s sake, especially the envelope-pushing kind. From which movies get nominated to which one wins, they reflect a fairly timid, commercially minded group’s consensus about what the traffic will bear.
Oscar voters are renowned for going with the less challenging, more anodyne choice when push comes to shove, most notoriously when Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash in 2006 (another face-off between a gay-themed movie and one all about L.A., by the way). But if a movie as peculiar as Crash ended up as the “safe” choice, times were changing anyway. That Brokeback Mountain could feature Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the leads, nab Ang Lee the Best Director Prize and qualify as a prestigious mainstream release in the first place reflected the same reality.
Even though La La Land is a much better movie than Crash and Moonlight leaves Brokeback Mountain looking like a well-meaning antique, the same pattern holds here. Once upon a time, the Academy wouldn’t have gone near Moonlight with tongs if it had been made by white people. Once upon a time, a goofy meta-musical from a 31-year-old director with only one previous feature (Whiplash) under his belt would have been Oscar Kryptonite even if it had a happy ending, which La La Land doesn’t.
So even if LLL ends up winning it all, maybe Moonlight boosters shouldn’t be too bummed out that the unsafe choice lost. If you’re asking us, the point is that the Academy’s idea of which choices are safe enough to even be in the running now includes Jenkins’s movie along with Chazelle’s, and that’s plenty remarkable all by itself. Once upon a time, both men could probably have made it to age 90 without ever having to rent a tuxedo again the minute their high-school proms were history.