Oscars Watch 2017: The Far Less-Depressing Campaign: What Did That All Mean?

So…wow guys.

Look, I know I’d been talking predictable for the Oscars this year, and I realize now that I’m sorely wrong about that. Trust me, my ballot shows it. For better and for worse, this year knew how to keep us on the toes.

There’s enough recaps of the whole night out there (including one elsewhere from me), so I won’t bore you by going over the clips you’ve seen a hundred times, praising and jeering what’s already been plenty praised and plenty jeered. Instead, I want to try to dive a little deeper here, and get into some of the political and industrial shifts and moral questions raised by the winners that we’ll have to deal with.

First things first, Moonlight won Best Picture. That’s huge for a lot of reasons. It’s a 1.6 million dollar film from a first-time production company (though long-time Distribution company) that was made by a majority Black production crew with an all Black cast that told the story of a young Black gay man.

It’s an almost direct repudiation to the idea that Black films simply don’t have an audience. Moonlight is not a slavery narrative nor a Civil Rights narrative. It’s a contemporary one about the Black experience as it exists in the modern day. It does those same things with its queer themes, telling the story of a gay man coming into his own with fullness, even ending on a romantic and joyful note. It’s unabashed about that, it presents the world with thought and deep deep empathy. And it won. That’s major, and it’s likely the clearest signal to Hollywood that these contemporary stories do have a prestige audience, even if they should have had that signal YEARS AGO.

It’s also a signal of a shift in the industrial necessity of filmmaking. It’s no secret that the film industry is staring at a bit of a precipice and it’s absolutely trying to figure out where to go right now. The mid-budget picture is all but gone as filmmaking increasingly splinters into massive budget and low budget. This puts the major studios over a barrel in how to keep up on both ends, and that leaves a vacuum for new groups to move in.

Last night was pretty much the confirmation that A24 and Amazon Studios would likely be those, with A24 functioning as the millennial Miramax. Amazon Studios seems to simply be the benefit of a great cash stream, picking up great films and giving them strong campaigns. A24 is a bit bigger.

Moonlight was the first film fully financed by A24, making it their first film as Production company rather than just as Distributor. Which means, yes, the first film from A24 won Best Picture. For a company that went from a dotted few wins to Best Picture in a year after being founded 5 years ago, that’s a huge deal. Expect to hear their name again, A24 has all eyes on it now more than ever. The A24 style is gonna get hot, as is their penchant for allowing directors a lot of room to tell unique, singular, visually stylish stories on low budgets. Putting 1.6 million (the kind of money a young first-timer could finance) into a film and getting a Best Picture out of it is the model everyone is going to try to follow.

The second big thing we need to talk is the Best Actor win. Casey Affleck won out over Denzel Washington. Casey is, of course, mired in controversy for 2010 sexual harassment allegations. This is the art and the artist conversation we’ve had for years, but it reflects an interesting wrinkle to the way we do awards.

With awards, we usually ask two separate questions. Does the performance merit it and does the performer merit it? This is how we get narratives like “It’s DiCaprio’s time” where he wins for a performance that is impressive but not necessarily good or what he’s good at. We think through what’s deserved for the performer based on who they are and their history.

In other words, separating art from the artist doesn’t just mean excusing the artist for the art. It means understanding how the artist and the art really are separate, and that we must look at them separately. That also means that both must factor in when we ask questions about rewarding any singular piece of art. Because though we separate them, we view an award as a validation of the art and the artist.

I bring this up here because the question of whether Casey Affleck deserves the award for this performance and whether we should give it to him are two entirely different questions. Does his performance deserve the award? Despite what the revisionism may tell you, of course he does. Casey’s performance in Manchester by the Sea is EXTRAORDINARY. A truly all-timer, jaw-dropping cinematic performance that wears years of history and pain and grief effortlessly, that carves out a character that you truly do feel for.

Does he deserve it though? Does Casey himself deserve it? With that sin hanging over his head, no. It’s a reward for bad behavior, a proof that he really could just get away with being an absolute scumbag to the women he had power over. Remember, this was on a film that he was directing, he had power over those people. The art may be worthy, the artist is not. We validated the artist by validating the art, and we have to wrestle with the fact that a harasser was validated by that.

It’s important to understand too that good art can come from bad people. Every time we pretend that only good people make good art, we create the environment where people get away with all manner of misdeed. We refuse to believe the people we like and that we look up to can be evil. Hell, that’s the message of the Best Documentary winner from this year. OJ Simpson was OJ, he could never murder anyone no matter what.

We have to understand art in its fullness and wrestle with what it means to see deep empathy come from people who don’t seem to feel it themselves. It’s how we begin to actually break down the power structures where when you’re a celebrity, you can apparently get away with anything.

Finally, I just want to say that I’m again incredibly thrilled for Moonlight. I love La La Land, but I think Moonlight is the first film in decades that can bear the weight of being a Best Picture nominee, and certainly the best film that’s won since 2007 or possibly 1993. I’m looking forward to the hopeful shift in storytelling possibilities that Moonlight winning will allow for the industry, and I’m looking forward to La La Land being a movie that I’m allowed to just enjoy and no longer being the avatar of film industry evil.

So yeah, that was a hell of a thing. I’ll see you all next year.

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