Moonlight’s Oscars triumph, and why it matters when black art loses out on big awards

Uncomfortable truth time: if you like music, film or TV, and also happen to be a person of colour, you already know that award committees love nothing more than to celebrate good work – as long as there are white faces at the front of it. And so we’re reminded, every awards season, that success is not necessarily represented in the number of statuettes taken home on a particular night, and we question what these awards even mean in the grand scheme of things.

And to an extent, that’s true enough: if awards were taken as objective sticks to measure quality with, it’d mean that many of the ‘greatest ever’ pieces of art are those solely created by, and centring straight, white men! However, awards still matter – and despite years of experience, it still stings when brilliant cultural artefacts get overlooked for failing to meet some very privileged standards of greatness.

Last month, we saw Beyoncé give a stellar performance – live, in tune and in all her maternal glory – at the Grammys. With the world’s eyes firmly focused on her following the announcement of her pregnancy, she didn’t disappoint as her artistic, high-concept performance of Love Drought and Sandcastles brought the internet to a standstill. After giving a landmark show (check out the isolated vocals and bless your day!) it seemed inevitable that she’d be the big winner that night, especially following a year of raising the bar of musical innovation.

Yet, she left with only two of the nine awards she was nominated for, astonishingly missing out on the top gong of Album of the Year – particularly shocking as it mirrored her fate at the 2015 Grammys, when her self-titled project lost to Beck’s Morning Phase. (Side note: anyone playing that, erm, ‘classic’ album, here in 2017? Asking for a friend…)

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Album of the Year 2017 instead went to 25, the third studio album from the globally adored Adele – an album which, despite its genuine charms and massive success, broke far less ground than Beyoncé’s genre-straddling concept piece. Even Adele herself wondered what the hell the deal was – though in no way mediocre, 25’s lasting impact pales to that of Lemonade’s, and happily, she had the grace to acknowledge so in her emotional acceptance speech. 

Later on, we saw artists such as Skepta, Stormzy and Kano leave the Brit Awards empty handed, despite the presenters’ zealous praises of grime throughout the show, and the significant number of viewers who tuned in only to see grime artists perform, and possibly prosper. Following the 2016 #BritsSoWhite backlash, in which no black artists were nominated in a major category, the committee was under pressure to do better – and while there was improved representation, the only solo British person of colour to get an award was Emeli Sandé.

So by the time the Oscars rolled around to bring the season to a close, you’d be forgiven for your faith in awards ceremonies being pretty low. With all the odds for the Best Picture award pointing towards an entertaining flick about a guy and a gal, pretty and white, falling in love under the glittering LA stars, it felt like too much of a stretch to believe that a low-budget film about a poor, queer, black boy becoming a man standing a chance.  

Alas, Moonlight, the tender adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play got the biggest award of the night, as well as Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (taken by Ahmadi Muslim actor and certified dish, Mahershala Ali)!

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But despite its universal praise from critics and audience alike, its Best Picture win still came as a surprise; history has shown that award voting committees favour safer works, while art that centres people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community or women tends to get consigned to categories of special interest, in turn denying them of their opportunities to have their greatness acknowledged on a wider scale.

When black art exceeds the requirements for outstanding achievement, but loses out because of its distance from historically celebrated white standards, it serves as a way of continuing ideas of excellence and whiteness being interlocked. Supremacist, much?

We could just accept this as the way it is, and put it down to a need for those outside the ‘mainstream’ categories to create their own systems of reward – or paint those who are angered by exclusion as being desperate for the acceptance of the oppressor. But be they Grammys, Brits, Tonys or Oscars, the big award ceremonies matter because important work deserves major acknowledgement. Year upon year, black creators push the bar with their products and performances, but are left in the auditorium seats, clapping and smiling for their white colleagues standing at the podium – even if their work was exceptional.

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Not only does this practice make the voting committee look unbalanced and outdated, but the awards themselves lose relevance to the real world. Art doesn’t only help to represent our surroundings, but helps to shape it. However, by uplifting the same, palatable narratives that it has done for decades, award shows keep plenty of incredible pieces sidelined and outside of the norm. But thankfully, Moonlight got its rightful reward, and as a result of the renewed buzz around it, more people have the chance to see a beautiful exposition of queerness and colour – a story that deserves to be considered as much a part of the norm as the film it nearly lost out to. 

In comparison to previous years, the Oscars did a good job of not being ‘#SoWhite’ this time around – while we’re here, we can also say a big ‘yaaaaas’ for (Queen) Viola Davis, who won her very first Oscar for her portrayal of Rose Maxson in Fences? 

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These are instances of just dues finally being paid – but the work’s far from finished. Until it’s commonplace to see creators of cultural magic getting what they deserve all the time, the goal hasn’t been reached. But after the 2017 Oscars, at least we know there’s a starting line.

 

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