Oscars: Can ‘Moonlight’ Pull Off a Best Picture Upset?


It seems that nothing can stop the speeding train of Hollywood musical joy that is Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” A record-tying 14 Oscar nominations and seven record-winning Golden Globe wins carries insurmountable weight going into the 89th Academy Awards. But where there is the impossible, there is history. From “Gravity” to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” we have witnessed movies dominate Oscar night without winning Best Picture. In those cases, one could argue they lost to films of greater significance.

Voters might have taken the space ride of their lives with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” but that’s peanuts compared to the brutality and human demoralization experienced by Solomon Northrup in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Similarly, “Mad Max: Fury Road’s” odyssey through post-apocalyptic wastelands and back pales to the gravity of “Spotlight’s” priest molestation subject matter. That is why we’d be remiss to underestimate “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ socially relevant and humanly precious film. A24’s awards contender centers on a closeted homosexual black man navigating life in the unforgiving poor neighborhoods of Miami. Protagonist Chiron’s struggle is every minority’s struggle in America: attempting to live in one’s truth with as much grace and dignity as society allows. The specificity of Chiron’s hardship is ironically what makes his tale so universally appreciated.

Now the question remains whether or not “Moonlight’s” importance factor can spur enough passion to topple “La La Land.” It is worrisome that even though “Moonlight” won more critics awards of any 2016 movie, it lost the Best Picture prize at the one televised awards show, BFCA. However, besting “Manchester by the Sea” at the Globes in Drama and its win at SAG is telling. What it signifies is voters branching out and truly absorbing other stories that don’t solely revolve around the misfortunes of white people.

While some might claim “Moonlight” losing to “Hidden Figures” at SAG hurts its Best Picture chances, “Manchester by the Sea’s” loss is actually a greater indicator of where the voter priority lies. Whether or not this is a response to #OscarsSoWhite or #BlackLivesMatter, the fact remains that 2017 represents a high turnout for black cinema at the Oscars. Three motion pictures led by a black cast are in the race for Best Picture. For the first time ever, the majority of women actresses in the Best Supporting Actress category are black. Finally, the standing ovation for “Moonlight” at the Globes versus the respectable, if slightly muted, response for “La La Land” implies that a major shift is afoot.

When looking at this frontrunner rivalry between “Moonlight” and “La La Land,” it’s hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu. This David and Goliath match-up is eerily similar on paper to “Boyhood” versus “Birdman.” The former was the sensitive, coming-of-age indie that tragically lost to the innovative movie about actors. There was a resounding sigh of disappointment when Hollywood patted itself on the back yet again with “Birdman’s” victory. After all, “The Artist” won three years prior – though without any real competition.

However, the difference between “Birdman” and “La La Land” is that the former was largely an appreciation film about the craft of acting. “La La Land” couldn’t even land a SAG Ensemble nomination and is very much a two-person song and dance. Since the actor’s branch is the largest in the Academy, their votes tipped the scale favorably for “Birdman.” Yet, the reverse could be true if their hearts belong to “Moonlight.” Given how the results of this election have galvanized actors into speaking out and marching against Trump and his new administration, such sentiments could carry over when the time comes to voting. Taking a major stance in support of two minority groups widely demonized and oppressed (African-Americans and LGBTQ) by voting “Moonlight” for “Best Picture” would send a valiant message that transcends awards prestige.

Georgia Film Critics Association

There’s one looming stat that hangs over “La La Land” that could obliterate its hopes entirely. “La La Land’s” omission from the Best Cast Ensemble at the SAG awards is a daunting obstacle to overcome. For one, a film has never won Best Picture without first obtaining a SAG nod since 1995’s “Braveheart.” Secondly, this bodes negatively due to the fact that there are overlapping voters in SAG and the Academy, and if the nomination body didn’t see fit to support “La La Land,” odds are their love will extend to either “Hidden Figures” or “Moonlight.” Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation” only had one actor of name recognition but was nominated for SAG regardless. Therefore, being an ensemble-driven film has little to no impact if the committee loves the film enough.

“Moonlight” is hoping for a “Hail Mary” come Best Picture time. Its Golden Globe victory combined with “La La Land’s” shocking SAG snub gives it enough of a fighting chance to cause a giddy upset. Lionsgate’s “Crash” had far more difficult a road to travel to the eventual podium, and now the only question remains whether “Moonlight” can achieve enough No. 1 votes in the first tally to overtake “La La Land” in popularity. Judging by the widespread response at every awards show following individual wins, I’d say “Moonlight” has more than a good shot. It’s got the support of the masses ready to push back against the alt-right agenda at its fingertips. A win for “Moonlight” would be a symbol to the world that even the most unlikely championed of stories deserve the brightest of spotlights.

Does “Moonlight” have what it takes to defeat behemoth contender, “La La Land”? Share your thoughts in the comments below!