In the space of a few seconds last night, one of the most boring Oscar telecasts in recent history became one of the most memorable. Here is how it went down: First, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner. This was not unexpected. The producers came on stage, flanked by the stars and a gaggle of unidentified crew members, and began reading their formulaic Oscar speeches.
Then, all hell broke loose. A diminutive man in a headset started burrowing through the crowd of people assembled onstage. Multiple red envelopes, the kind that the winners were printed on, were passed around. Emma Stone looked concerned. Warren Beatty looked bewildered. There was a small huddle, after which Jordan Horowitz, a La La Land producer, stepped to the microphone and spoke the words that will be forever etched in Oscar lore: “There has been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.”
It was a shocking moment that surely woke up the millions of viewers who had sunk deep into their easy chairs. Until then, this had been one of the most uneventful, uninteresting Oscars ceremonies ever. There were no other surprises in the major categories, although some pundits were betting on Denzel Washington over Casey Affleck for Best Actor. Jimmy Kimmel was an adequate host, not particularly funny but certainly not falling into the dreaded Seth MacFarlane category. It was just kind of meh.
What the Oscars lacked was any real political bite, which had been implicitly promised over the course of awards season. The Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards had been teeming with political speeches. Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump rant while accepting her lifetime achievement award at the Globes kicked things off, and once Donald Trump responded to her directly, you got the sense that an official war had been launched. Mahershala Ali followed with a poised, graceful speech about his Muslim faith at the SAG awards, and the stage was set perfectly for one of the most political ceremonies yet. The Oscars, after all, are no stranger to protest speeches.
But outside of the boycott by Best Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, who had two Iranian-Americans accept his award, that’s not what we got. “I wish I had something bigger and more meaningful to say,” said Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) during his speech, and viewers at home were likely nodding along. Ali, who won the Best Supporting Actor award for his bravura performance in Moonlight, made no mention of his faith, although his speech was moving in a personal way. Viola Davis, a winner for Fences, brought the house down with an emotional monologue about employing art to unearth America’s buried past. But she did not reference civil rights or any other politics in her speech, a surprise in a year that was framed by many as the Academy’s response to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Only Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, when accepting his award for Best Adapted Screenplay, seemed to touch the expected political nerve, telling the audience: “To all those people who feel like they are not reflected… the Academy has your back.”
He had no idea how right he was. In recent years, the Academy has had its share of critics, both within the industry and outside of it, who questioned why the awards body seemed so much further behind the American people in its acceptance of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. For example, Halle Berry was the first black woman to win Best Actress, and that was in 2002. She is still the only woman of color to win that award. Meanwhile, films about the LGBTQ community, like 2015’s Carol, have struggled to get traction.
Not anymore. Moonlight is the first LGBTQ film to win Best Picture, and when that tumultuous moment arrived halfway through hour four of the telecast, it felt like a seismic shift in the politics of the Academy. Like all political shifts, it occurred painfully. Feelings were hurt. Pride was swallowed. But by the end of the night, change had occurred.
The unexpected hero of the evening was Jordan Horowitz, the producer of La La Land, who ushered in that change with nearly unimaginable grace and dignity. The way he phrased the announcement—“Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture”—displayed to the world a culture of mutual respect and camaraderie that is entirely lost in the caricature of “liberal Hollywood” often employed by modern-day Republicans and, heck, even some Democrats. After a long, contentious awards season, Horowitz looked across the aisle at a film vastly different from his own—a competitor, no less—and chose to be their ally instead of their enemy, even as he endured a mortifying moment at their expense.
Because it was so unprecedented, the Moonlight team didn’t believe him at first. “This is not a joke,” Horowitz continued, understanding that, in that moment, the most important thing was to get the facts right. He grabbed the correct card out of Beatty’s hand, held it up for the cameras, and said simply, “Moonlight.” The crowd roared, appreciating both the choice and the clarity he provided in a moment of utter chaos. By emphasizing transparency and community in a peaceful transition of power, Horowitz offered a stirring, spontaneous rebuke of the divisive political culture driven by this president whose name went largely unspoken by the winners last night. Maybe it’s better this way. In the years of Oscar past, actors and filmmakers have contrived to create significant political moments that would resonate with the public. Last night, when it counted the most, the moment found them.