There are many reasons why we will never forget the 89th Academy Awards. For one, it was anti-Trump, anti-Mexican-wall, anti-Muslim-ban, and pro-immigration, pro-diversity, pro-public-education. Hollywood made it clear that it is not down with the president's racist and xenophobic agenda. So Trump is not only at war with the press, but also the biggest image and story manufacturers in the world.
The event also showed us that we have gone beyond Guy Debord's "society of the spectacle," which was first theorized in 1967 and condemned the passive and distracted consumption of popular images. This was made clear when ordinary people taking an open-deck bus tour of Tinseltown were led by Jimmy Kimmel, the Oscar's host, right into the middle of the most spectacular spectacle in the world. And what did these ordinary people do at the moment of the big surprise? Just stand around starstruck? No, they pulled out their smartphones and began taking pictures and videos and selfies that would soon be uploaded to their social-network sites. Fame is no longer something you try to see directly, but instead it is captured like pearls in a bay and displayed to your friends and relatives for likes. The spectator is no longer passive but an active part of the spectacle.
But the most memorable thing to happen at the Oscars was, of course, the climatic mix-up. At the very end of the Trump-bashing event, the best picture was announced by two Hollywood gods, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Beatty opened the envelope, looked at it funny, and then showed it to Dunaway, who then quickly announced the winner to be La La Land. The makers of that film took to the stage, accepted their statues, and while giving speeches were rudely informed that a mistake had been made. Their film did not win the top prize of the event. The actual winner was the film Moonlight. A bunch of confused-looking white people then exited the stage and were replaced by a bunch of surprised-looking black people. The whole thing was just crazy.
It wasn't just the mistake itself that was significant, however, but the fact that it involved the two films that defined the whole event and even the state of Hollywood today. Had the best picture mistakenly gone to, say, Hidden Figures, or Arrival, or Lions, or Manchester by the Sea, or any other film but La La Land, the announcement of the real winner, Moonlight, would not have been so striking. Why? Because one film, La La Land, was built to win the Oscars and the other, Moonlight, was not. The former had everything the Academy loves: big names, a lush love story set in and around Los Angeles, snazzy direction, lots of quirkiness, and success at the box office. The latter was an accident of history and had nothing in it that the Academy usually recognizes and rewards.
For example, the film The Birth of a Nation was, like La La Land, made for the Oscars. It did spectacularly well at Sundance 2016, and many predicted it would be the film to smash #OscarsSoWhite to pieces in 2017 with its angry and rebellious blackness. But then a report of a rape case that involved the film's director, Nate Parker, and cowriter, Jean McGianni Celestin, surfaced—and all of the steam of that Oscar-winning machine was lost. Though the director was not convicted of the crime, the public and the award industry nevertheless avoided the film. No one today is even talking about The Birth of a Nation.
But everyone is talking about the film that emerged from nowhere and, like Nation, was directed by a young black man, Barry Jenkins. But Nation is the sort of black film that the Oscars love (angry slaves, painful whippings, solemn speeches about freedom) and Moonlight is not. Indeed, Jenkins's film is so black (virtually no white people are in it) that it's not black at all.
We have not seen a film like Moonlight in the theater since Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger, a 1990 feature that is entirely about a black middle-class family in Los Angeles, and it mentions racism only in its final minutes. The Academy usually ignores films that are just about black people being people—being fathers, or mothers, or sisters, or sons—which is why no one remembers To Sleep with Anger and why Moonlight should have come and gone and been forgotten.
Moonlight is not a problem film in the classical Hollywood sense (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Color Purple, Hidden Figures). It is not about being black in America and says nothing about American racism. It's a simple but sad love story of two young and gay Miamians, Chiron and Kevin. True, had they lived in a more open society, their love for each other might have blossomed into a happy and long relationship. But the film does not deal with that possibility, or with the larger society and its prejudices. Instead it focuses on the inner worlds of its main characters.
Now, with film, it's easy to show a character who is mad or sad or glad. These emotions reach the surface very easily. The much harder job for a director or actor or cinematographer or screenwriter is to capture on film the deeper and more complex feelings, such as: He betrayed me but I still love him or She is like a mother to me but I desire her boyfriend (and to express this feeling with your eyes while eating fried chicken) or Does this man in the kitchen know that the most important moment in my life was spent with him that night on the beach (and to express this with a golden grill in your mouth). This is the depth of Moonlight. This is why it deserved to win best picture. And this is why we will never forget that moment when it was suddenly announced that La La Land, one of the most perfect Oscar films ever made, had lost to the kind of film the Academy hasn't recognized in its 89 years of existence: a black film that's not about blackness.