Water is wet. The sky is blue. Moonlight is the best of the Best Picture nominees.
It feels almost silly writing what feels like an “In Defense of Moonlight” piece when literally everyone has been saying, and even writing, this exact same argument. But, dear readers, I am not here to drag La La Land—the strongest Oscar contender this year—in the process. Can we independently enjoy La La Land without associating it with Trump getting elected, the Patriots winning the Super Bowl, and Adele taking home Album of the Year? Yes, white people and white art been winning, but there are too many bones to pick, and La La Land is too low on that list. In short: La La Land is not the Trump of the Oscars, as I’ve seen several articles position it as so. That’s a dumb and irresponsible argument to make—unless, you know, Damien Chazelle goes full Joy Villa at the Oscars.
Thing is, La La Land will indeed win. That’s just how things go. But who wins is rarely indicative of who deserves it most especially given the Academy’s history (remember when Shawshank Redemption AND Pulp Fiction both lost out to Forrest Gump?), and who “deserves it most” is already such a subjective matter. I’m just here to argue that Moonlight deserves it most, so feel free to disagree. At least the nominee pool hasn’t been so glaringly… white this time around. There’s been a conscious, even eyebrow-raising effort to shine light on more diverse films this year as white guilt counter-action to last year’s disastrously pale awards season. (TBT that Birth of a Nation buzz, which died out long before Awards Season.) And while I fully believe studios should take more chances on diverse voices—because they’re sure as hell comfortable taking chances on white newcomers, especially of the male variety—I don’t think we should be handing out awards on the basis of diversity alone. Blind championing without any basis on merit only hurts the cause.
But Moonlight—my god, Moonlight—is damn near perfect. The Academy—you love touching dramas, don’t ya? Well here’s one for you, and Moonlight does it without even pandering to the awards season in a way that many of these films overtly do (still looking at you, Danish Girl). It’s not tidy in the way Hidden Figures is, nor flashy like La La Land, but it is a lingering, intimate picture that will later be looked back at as a “game-changer” in cinema. Moonlight is a coming-of-age story of Chiron, whose life is tracked in three different acts and portrayed by three different actors, and while coming-of-age stories aren’t rare, Jenkins’ treatment of his lead—as a boy struggling with his queerness, blackness, and background—definitely is.
But frankly, I don’t think Moonlight saw itself get this far in award talk. It started out as a small, buzzy indie film that kept growing and growing, and come February 26, it’s got a real chance in the race. Barry Jenkins employs just the kind of intersectional storytelling that desperately deserves attention from the Oscars. But Moonlight has also been acclaimed across the board for how universal it is—as if that were a shocker. Oh this movie about a gay black man is relatable? (Please, I’ve been relating to white people cinema for years.)
There is truth to that, though. For being on the lighter side of dialogue, Moonlight emotes so much with body language and that shared look of uncertainty in each of the actor’s eyes. I’m sure there was a transcendent emotional connection at work between the film and audiences all over the world. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t need subtitles. Also, here is a movie that has an ensemble of mostly newcomers, but the acting from each of them feels divine. (Whatever happens with the Best Picture results, at least Mahershala Ali will take home a Best Supporting Actor—probably.) The cinematography is the kind that warrants utterings of “breathtaking!” Moonlight is lit by hues of blues, depicting scenes from the idyllic beach to the Miami nightlife. The story moves lyrically, each of the three chapters like a piece of a symphony. We are given characters who are, as real people are, hard to fit in “hero” or “villain” boxes, but contain multitudes (lovers and parental figures alike). As a fan of both Moonlight and La La Land, I find that this is where Moonlight far exceeds its biggest competition: the latter lacks the fleshed out character development (especially in regards to Emma Stone’s character) that makes us resonate with the film beyond the spectacular musical numbers.
Most of all, Moonlight is the kind of film that demands empathy, and I think we can all agree we could all use a little more empathy right now. Yes, a vote for Moonlight would be a vote for the most politically correct choice. But the Oscars aren’t in the business for that, and if they were, Hidden Figures, which is about NASA’s black women mathematicians (and also the highest-grossing film of the year’s nominees) would perhaps be the sound choice. But Hidden Figures still feels all too tidy in its treatment of racial relations, whereas Moonlight navigates the tougher crevices with humanity. Moonlight isn’t just the best of the Best Picture nominees, Moonlight is perhaps the best picture of 2016, period.