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Movies like ‘Moonlight’ don’t win the Oscar for best picture — until they do

Movies like “Moonlight” don’t win the Oscar for best picture.

Movies about the conflicted desires of young gay men, captured with quiet tenderness and exquisite intimacy, don’t win the Oscar for best picture. (Just ask “Brokeback Mountain.”)

Movies that tell modest coming-of-age stories, light on dramatic incident but rich in emotional rewards, don’t win the Oscar for best picture. (Just ask “Boyhood.”)

Movies that subtly examine some of the social and systemic burdens that weigh heavily on too many African Americans today — poverty, parental abandonment, drug addiction and mass incarceration — don’t win the Oscar for best picture.

Movies about black life that are not overtly about slavery don’t win the Oscar for best picture.

It’s hard to overstate just how culturally, economically, institutionally and statistically improbable an outcome “Moonlight’s” best-picture Oscar win represents. 

Movies that lose all three major guild prizes — from the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild — don’t win the Oscar for best picture.

Movies that dispense with the conventions of three-act narrative, that convey their most profound meanings through silence and implication rather than brashness and showmanship, don’t win the Oscar for best picture.

Movies that were financed on a shoestring and that draw their deepest stylistic influences from Asian art-cinema auteurs like Wong Kar-wai don’t win the Oscar for best picture.

As many already have expressed, it was an accomplishment simply for a little-known filmmaker’s second feature to parlay its strong festival reception and critical acclaim into a remarkable eight Academy Award nominations.

The film’s supporters were hoping for wins for Mahershala Ali’s performance and for Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s adapted screenplay, and they got them on Sunday night. They had hoped for more, but they weren’t expecting it.

“La La Land” had this. Everyone knew it had this. It entered the night with the all-important PGA and DGA precursors and a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. Awards watchers were expecting a massive trophy haul. The title on the best-picture statuette was all but engraved. Faye Dunaway, reading that title from the envelope in Warren Beatty’s hand, was sure “La La Land” had this.

And then, in a surreal blur of horror and confusion that made for the biggest blunder in the Oscars’ 89-year history — it didn’t.

Movies like “Moonlight” don’t win the Oscar for best picture. But then, suddenly, “Moonlight” did.

What happened on that Dolby Theatre stage was astonishing: a public collision of good intentions, logistical errors and very real, very human embarrassment. It was tremendously upsetting and unsettling to watch and also deeply touching.

Amid the kind of setback that would have utterly paralyzed anyone else, it was extraordinary to see how classily and decisively “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz seized control of the awful moment, explaining what had happened and expressing his pride at being able to present the Oscar to “my friends from ‘Moonlight.’”

It was touching to be reminded that for all their talent and ambition, both Jenkins, 37, and Damien Chazelle — at 32, the youngest best director winner in academy history — are still so new to this industry, and far too new to have to shoulder this level of insanity. Then again, this isn’t the kind of deer-in-the-headlights moment you’d wish on a grizzled veteran — or your worst enemy.

I was rooting hard for “Moonlight” to win best picture, but I had more than contented myself with the certainty of a win for “La La Land,” a film I admired enormously. The respect and affection that Jenkins and Chazelle expressed for each other throughout awards season — and again, on the Oscars stage — set an example of collegial behavior and sportsmanship that shames every attempt to pit them against each other, as if they were aesthetic and ideological nemeses.

It also shames the lingering rancor of our recent presidential election, dragged out amid boasts, bluster and accusations over fake voters, fake news and Russian rigging. Anyone inclined to attack Hollywood for dwelling in a bubble of high privilege, impervious to the concerns of real, decent Americans, might look back on this crazy episode and find an instructive example of how self-respecting human beings treat each other in their shared instances of triumph and defeat.

Did it perhaps have to happen this way — with an agonizing catastrophe, followed by a symbolic righting of wrongs? The last few years have been transformative for the academy, with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy culminating in the organization’s decision to dramatically diversify its membership.

The multiple nominations for “Moonlight,” as well as other worthy black ensemble films like “Fences” and “Hidden Figures,” marked a legitimate sea change. And that change inevitably found a more establishment rival in “La La Land,” which was increasingly and unfairly burdened by accusations of toxic, oblivious whiteness as the Oscar campaign season stretched on.

The promotion of diversity is a worthy cause and also a messy, sensitive, difficult business. In that context, Sunday night’s screw-up — the sorrow and humiliation of the “La La Land” crew, and the shock and guilt that marred the “Moonlight” team’s victory lap — should perhaps be viewed as a symbolic transition.

Yes, it was a case of human error at its most ill timed. No, it shouldn’t have gone down this way. But it’s also curiously emblematic of the growing pains that the academy will inevitably experience as it tries to make sense of its imperfect past and build a more representative future. 

And with those growing pains, as the “La La Land” and “Moonlight” filmmakers amply demonstrated, there will also be opportunities for people to show each other uncommon grace and decency.

The academy already has much to be proud of this year on the diversity front. Even without a Denzel Washington win for lead actor, the ceremony set a record for the most black Oscar winners (six, recognized in five categories). In a year of unprecedented anti-Islam hostility from the highest branches of government, Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar for his gorgeous “Moonlight” performance. The Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, now a two-time foreign-language film winner with “The Salesman,” weighed in from afar with a stirring, eloquent rebuke of the Trump administration’s discriminatory policies.

There is room to quibble about the merits of individual award choices, but all in all, the balance of aesthetic discernment and political astuteness could hardly have been better judged. And it was in “Moonlight’s” best picture win — a rare commingling of art, emotion, race, sexuality, culture and politics, played out on Hollywood’s most prestigious stage — that the academy’s best intentions clumsily but indelibly converged.

The win was shocking enough; the reversal, even more so. Perhaps cinema this groundbreaking makes its own rules.

But after the embarrassment of a worldwide live-TV fiasco recedes into memory — and I know, it’s not going to recede anytime soon — the outcome will be the same, and it’ll be worth remembering. From here on out, no one will be able to say that movies like “Moonlight” don’t win the Oscar for best picture. 

Then again, it will be some time before we see another movie quite like “Moonlight.”

More about “Moonlight” . . .

justin.chang@latimes.com

On Twitter: @JustinCChang

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