As expected, La La Land was the big winner at last night’s Oscars, sweeping up six awards, including Best Director and Best Actress. What wasn’t expected was the surprise victory for Moonlight in the Best Picture category. It was a shock not only because La La Land had been odds-on favourite for months, but because of the now infamous mix-up: the Best Picture award was accidentally given to La La Land first.
Moonlight’s victory must not be seen as a victory for the push for greater diversity at the Oscars. Many claim the diversity of this year’s nominees and Moonlight’s victory are down to the 683 new members of the Academy, who are the most diverse group in the Academy’s history. This is being held up as proof that the immorality of the privileged can only be fixed by giving more power to the underprivileged. But this simply isn’t true. The Academy has over 6,000 members in total, so the new batch, making up about a tenth, would not be enough to tip the scales if the Academy really was institutionally prejudiced. Moonlight simply couldn’t have won without getting a considerable number of votes from white males.
People seem to forget that 12 Years a Slave won just three years ago, under an Academy which the LA Times said was 93 per cent white. This year’s record for non-white acting nominees is tied with the ceremony of 10 years ago, which was overseen by a mostly white Academy. To say, or hope, that Moonlight’s victory is down to the Academy’s newfound diversity suggests you think these new members are more interested in voting for diverse films over good films, or that they’re as biased as white male members of the Academy allegedly are, and will only vote for people who look like them.
It trivialises racism when people attach that word to things as banal as the Oscars. The Oscars clearly wasn’t racist the year in which 12 Years a Slave was the big winner; and yet in the following year there was the ‘Oscars so white’ controversy, suggesting the Academy had suddenly turned racist again. From this racialised perspective, there was no reason La La Land could have won Best Picture last night other than prejudice. The word ‘racist’ becomes meaningless if institutions can be racist one year but not the next, and if the cure to this alleged racism lies in something as easy as giving an award to a particular film.