What Sunday’s Oscar Snafu Means for the Academy

And the Oscar goes to ‘La La Land’… I mean, ‘Moonlight.’

That now infamous snafu aside — Hollywood legend Warren Beatty announcing the wrong winner for Best Picture — the 89th Academy Awards have passed into history.  And yes, that flub will haunt the awards body for years to come, but its lasting impact will be an entirely different beast altogether: highlighting not just what a radical departure the actual winner was from what we had grown to expect from this specific race, but from what we had grown to expect from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a cultural institution.

Despite its inherently liberal proclivities, the Academy has historically been a pretty conservative group: mostly old, white, male and wealthy.  A cursory glance at their membership makes them look more in line with the RNC than the bastion of liberal identity politics that they supposedly represent.

This disparity came to a head in the last two Oscar ceremonies, where revolutionary and worthwhile “Black films” were locked out of contention for the night’s biggest awards.  #OscarsSoWhite became such a massive controversy that preceding this year’s ceremony, the Academy took radical steps to level the playing field.  They stripped long-retired Academy members of their voting rights and extended membership to a large and diverse body of young filmmakers.

What Sunday’s Oscar Snafu Means for the Academy

This shakeup to who was allowed to vote first manifested in the kinds of nominees we were seeing.  Whereas the 88th Academy Awards featured only white actors in the four acting categories, the 89th Academy Awrds prominently featured Denzel Washington, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, Dev Patel, Viola Davis, Naomi Harris and Octavia Spencer.    While the 88th ceremony had only Straight Outta Compton with a screenplay nomination, the 89th ceremony had four.  And unlike the 88th Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees were all straight-laced “white” films, the 89th Oscars had Fences, Lion, Hidden Figures and the eventually winner, Moonlight.

The winner of Best Foreign Language Picture, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, was unable to receive his award in person because of Trump’s controversial travel ban.  Three of the Best Documentary nominees, including its winner, focused on “Black” subjects and four of the nominees were directed by people of color.  The Documentary Short winning film is about Syrian Civil Defense Workers operating during that country’s civil war.

What Sunday’s Oscar Snafu Means for the Academy

This year’s ceremony had stronger lineups across a majority of its categories than any other Oscar ceremony I can remember.  Suicide Squad aside, all of the nominees were absolutely among the greatest in their respective categories for the year.  The array of talent being celebrated was staggeringly diverse and, although everybody is bound to have a different opinion on the matter, the winners were absolutely spot-on.

And while there is a lot of speculation that this might just be a flash in the pan for the academy — that this year was the “Black Oscars” and next year it will be back to business as usual — I do not and cannot believe that that is the case.  Under other circumstances, that absolutely could have been how things played out, but people who cling to this theory today are forgetting one very important detail: the Academy has fundamentally altered the way it conducts “business as usual” from now on.

What Sunday’s Oscar Snafu Means for the Academy

Remember, since the 88th Oscars, the Academy has permanently inducted a host of new voting talent.  These new voters aren’t going away now that the 89th Oscars have concluded.  Not only that, but every new Oscar winner is now a permanent voting member, granting further voice to the traditionally marginalized populations they represent.  This is a snowballing effect that will only continue to diversify the Academy’s membership, making it increasingly look like the film industry — and America — it belongs to.

And this is a good thing.  The films were vastly superior to those honored in years past: more accurately representing the very best the film industry as a whole has to offer.  And as these diverse new films are increasingly valued by the industry as a whole, studios will see more reasons to bankroll them.  We are on the cusp of a new American cinema: one that reflects the reality it tries to capture.

What Sunday’s Oscar Snafu Means for the Academy

So the story of the night should not be that La La Land lost, or even that Moonlight won.   It should be that the Oscars finally got things right: representing and honoring the full spectrum of best movies from the last year.  It should be that its admittedly reactionary changes made to its voting membership have worked, producing a more diverse and vibrant crop of nominees and winners than it had proven capable of otherwise.  The specifics of La La Land vs Moonlilght merely serve as context for this.


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