Thursday, March 2, 2017

Forget the envelope, please:
Moonlight eclipses our expectations

ALL RIGHT. You know the deal by now. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read that La La Land was the winner in the Best Picture category for the 89th Academy Awards, even though the real winner was Moonlight. The fabric of the universe has thus been torn asunder forever; the sun will rise in the west under further notice.

Such has been the short-term fallout from the biggest gaffe in the history of the Oscars, with the immediate cosmic-gobsmack reaction approaching the clinical (never mind the fact that it's happened before: Peep this link). But end of the day, Barry Jenkins’ film of a poor black boy’s sexual awakening while growing up in Miami, became the first LGBTQ tale to win the best picture Oscar, making history on multiple fronts.

This lean, spare, subliminally muscular film went out and did the impossible; some would have said, given the power of the La La Land juggernaut, maybe even done the unthinkable.

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On TV, what happened within two minutes of the Beatty-Dunaway error looked like a rugby scrum with tuxedos; the stage of the Dolby Theater swarmed with people who didn’t belong there. The mistake was realized within a few minutes (the time it took for two of La La Land’s producers to fully express their thanks for a victory that dissipated before their eyes).

Consequently, what’s happened over the ensuing days has come close to a forensic investigation. To go by a story in the Los Angeles Times, there’s even talk about how the redesign of the winners’ envelopes may have been to blame.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (the accounting firm whose name is mercifully short-handed as PwC) has been responsible for handling Oscars voting counts and winners' envelopes since 1934. They had a statement too:

“The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope, and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.”

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THE ACADEMY of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a full statement:

“We deeply regret the mistakes that were made during the presentation of the Best Picture category during last night’s Oscar ceremony. We apologize to the entire cast and crew of ' La La Land’ and ‘Moonlight’ whose experience was profoundly altered by this error. We salute the tremendous grace they displayed under the circumstances. To all involved —  including our presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the filmmakers, and our fans watching worldwide  —  we apologize.

“For the last 83 years, the Academy has entrusted PwC to handle the critical tabulation process, including the accurate delivery of results. PwC has taken full responsibility for the breaches of established protocols that took place during the ceremony. We have spent last night and today investigating the circumstances, and will determine what actions are appropriate going forward. We are unwaveringly committed to upholding the integrity of the Oscars and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”

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This felt like the 13th mea culpa that PwC or the Academy has issued since the whole thing happened. If all that clarification wasn’t enough, on Tuesday, Beatty (present at the creation of all this) told The Associated Press that he thought Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs should step forward and publicly clarify what happened as soon as possible.”

We’ve gotten the drift: Heads will roll, asses will be worn for hats. But there may be nothing else to clarify. The AP seems to have hit on a chronology of events that makes sense. With so many moving parts in the proper performance of an event of this magnitude, the law of averages suggests that things were ripe for a fall. Maybe it was just something in the wrong place at the wrong time, or something in the right place at the wrong time:

From The AP: “Neither PwC or the academy has commented on whether [PwC partner Brian] Cullinan's use of social media was a factor in the error. The PwC partner tweeted a behind-the-scenes photo of best-actress winner Emma Stone moments before the best picture announcement. The tweet was later deleted.

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“As per protocol, Cullinan and PwC colleague Martha Ruiz toted briefcases to the awards via the red carpet, each holding an identical set of envelopes for the show's 24 categories. The accountants are also supposed to memorize the winners. During the telecast, the accountants were stationed in the Dolby Theatre wings, one stage left and one stage right, to give presenters their category's envelope before they went on stage.

“Most presenters entered stage right, where Cullinan was posted and where he handed Beatty and Dunaway the errant envelope. Yet the previous award, best actress, had been presented by Leonardo DiCaprio, who entered stage left and received the envelope from Ruiz. That left a duplicate, unopened envelope for best actress at stage right.”

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BUT AS you might expect, the mess has awakened the conspiracy-theory beast, that restless animal of our culture who sleeps with one eye open, now more than ever. That’s what led to the whole imbroglio’s being given an award it doesn’t really deserve: a hashtag of its very own. What’s been named #EnvelopeGate doesn’t really rise to that level of controversy.

Elizabeth understood that in her comment at TheRoot: “It’s the perfect intersection of expectations, racial politics, and a genuine mistake. Can’t wait to see what Breitbart manages to vomit up.”

Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, was more diplomatic. “I will say, the folks from La La Land were so gracious. I can’t imagine being in their position and having to do that. We spent a lot of time together over the last six months, and I can’t imagine being in their position. It’s why I was speechless—I wasn’t speechless because I won, I was so speechless that they had to do that,” Jenkins said to the Times.

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ALL IN all, it’s the worst case of who-shot-John in the 89-year history of the Oscars, but it’s never really threatened to obscure the bigger, more important Moonlight stories yet to be told. There’s the powerful economic story of the film itself. A motion picture made for $1.5 million — Hollywood’s couch-cushion money by comparison — eclipsed the clout of films made with 20 or 30 times more money to become the best film of the year, and the first Best Picture with an all-black cast.

And according to Deadline, it’s about to go into wider release this weekend, up from 585 theaters to 1,500. That fact should blow up the box-office receipts; the film made for a million five, has already grossed more than $22 million from U.S. theaters, and international release is still to come.

By any measure, Moonlight is a triumph of creative storytelling economics, and hand in glove with a talent African Americans have had for generations: the uncanny ability to make a masterpiece of the leavings from the table. To take next to nothing and transform it into something the world can’t live without.

And there’s the deeper, more fully resonant story of Moonlight: With this story (and [on the small screen] ABC’s When We Rise, an LGBTQ miniseries written by Milk Oscar screenwriter Dustin Lance Black), gays and lesbians who’ve endured the agony of a life lived “on the downlow” have another rightful validation of their experience, another chronicle of their time in this world etched on a wall of the pantheon of our wider culture, an indelible part of the most popular art form in the world.

Forget the envelope, please. What matters? Moonlight won, a triumph of the power of our humanity over the insistence of our expectations. Nuff said.

Image credits: Jordan Horowitz and Warren Beatty: Kevin Winter/Getty Images. Moonlight poster: © 2017 A24. AMPAS logo and The Oscar image: © 2017 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. PwC logo: © 2017 PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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