Arts & Entertainment

Analysis: Oscar wasn't so white for a night, but big challenges remain

Writer/director Barry Jenkins (L) and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney accept Best Adapted Screenplay for
Writer/director Barry Jenkins (L) and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney accept Best Adapted Screenplay for "Moonlight" during the 89th Annual Academy Awards.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

“La La Land” did not really win best picture after all.

That’s the obvious and probably lasting headline after the wrong envelope fiasco at Sunday’s Academy Awards that will soon subject PriceWaterhouseCoopers to a spirited “repeal and replace” debate inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Yet by focusing on the unforgivable error — six Academy governors told me after the ceremony that there are duplicate envelopes for every category, and the accountants inexplicably gave the wrong one to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway — we lose sight of which movie actually took home the night’s biggest prize. And that award went to a $1.5-million production that defied the odds (and the Academy’s long history of bias) at every step of its journey. The first co-production by distributor A24, “Moonlight” should soon build on its modest but respectable gross of $22.3 million.

“Moonlight” ended up collecting a remarkable three Oscars — for best picture, best adapted screenplay for director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali. While the latter two triumphs were expected, the win in the night’s biggest category was perhaps the biggest shocker of the entire evening.

Jenkins, McCraney and Ali are all black men, and the African American performer Viola Davis was named best supporting actress for her work in “Fences.” Unless there’s another accounting glitch, we will never know the true balloting numbers, but Davis’ co-star, Denzel Washington, was almost certainly beaten out by just a handful of votes by Casey Affleck for best actor, and Washington seemed disappointed — perhaps even angry — on camera.

For the past two years, not a single person of color was nominated in any of the 20 acting categories. And as the Academy, in reaction to those all-white selections, expanded its voting ranks to try to broaden its membership’s demographics, this year’s acting picks were more diverse than ever. Never before were black performers nominated in every single acting category until Sunday’s 89th annual show. And now, on top of that, “Moonlight” and its entire cast of black actors is named the best picture.

But a closer look at the nominees and the winners shows that in addition to grilling its accounting firm, the academy still has a lot of work to do.

Among the 18 people nominated for original and adapted screenplay and director (owing to shared screenwriting credits), there was just one woman shortlisted — Allison Schroeder for “Hidden Figures.” And when “The Jungle Book’s” visual effects team took the stage to pick up its Oscar, the winners were all — like their broader industry — white men.

Before the best picture gaffe, Warren Beatty said onstage: “The goal in politics is the same as our goal in art – to get to the truth.” Obviously, the truth as to who won best picture was not immediately clear.

But the ultimate truth of “Moonlight’s” coronation is what really matters, and beyond the accountants’ handing presenters the correct envelope, that win could end up being the night’s most teachable moment.