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Moonlight's win shows Hollywood is ready for more diversity, but it still has a way to go

The Academy Awards this year will be remembered as the Oscars with the massive gaffe at its climax, but it will also go down as the most political show in recent memory, albeit in a low-key, often jokey way.

It will also be known as the one in which the tiny coming-of-age story of a gay African-American man, Moonlight, beat La La Land for Best Picture, when it looked as if nothing could stand in the way of the latter, a musical starring two of Tinseltown's most bankable stars, Emma Stone, the night's Best Actress, and Ryan Gosling.

Host Jimmy Kimmel is not known for political material on his talkshow, but his opening monologue addressed how the "America first" policy is hurting international relations.

"This broadcast is being watched by millions of Americans and, around the world, 225 countries that now hate us, and I think that is an amazing thing."

His tone then became more sombre.

"I don't want to get too serious right now, but if everyone watching this took a minute to reach out to one person you disagree with and have a considered conversation, we could make American great again."

He followed that up later in the show with jokes about United States President Donald Trump's late-night tweeting habits.

Fittingly, the first Oscar of the night went to Moonlight's Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.

And it was not just Kimmel. Words such as "inclusiveness", "empathy", "art" and "borders" peppered the speeches of winners.

There was nothing as direct as actress Meryl Streep's thinly veiled anti-Trump speech during the Golden Globes earlier this year, but there was no mistaking Hollywood's stance on Mr Trump's edicts on immigration and transgender rights.


Winner for best director Moonlight Barry Jenkins holds his trophy at the 89th Annual Academy Awards Governors Ball in Hollywood, California, on Feb 26, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Ms Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, spoke of movies as "proof that art does not belong to one single faith".

"All creative artists around the world are connected by an unbreakable bond," she said in a speech.

The US' temporary ban on travellers from Iran and Syria affected two films, both of which won in their categories.

Iran's The Salesman won Best Foreign Language Film, but its director Asghar Farhadi,  boycotted the awards to protest against the ban.

The producers of The White Helmets, winner of the Documentary Short Subject prize, were also affected by the ban, which prevented its cinematographer, Syrian national Khaled Kateeb, from entering the US.

Incidentally, the two films set a precedent: They mark the first wins at the Oscars for streaming services Amazon, distributor of social drama The Salesman in the US;  and Netflix, distributor of The White Helmets, which records the rescue operations of a volunteer team rescuing people from bomb sites.

Amazon Studios also produced Original Screenplay winner Manchester By The Sea.

The wins for the streaming services will give the newer players a boost in prestige, making them more attractive to film-makers looking for alternatives to traditional studios.

Another surprise of the night came when the Best Actor award went to Casey Affleck instead of Denzel Washington, who looked to be the favourite after he took the Best Actor prize at the Screen Actors Guild of America (SAG) Awards for his role in the period drama Fences, which he also directed.

Up till then, the 41-year-old Affleck was on a roll. For playing the troubled handyman Lee in Manchester By The Sea, he notched up Best Actor wins at the British Academy Film Awards (Bafta) and the Golden Globes.

Because there is a large overlap between SAG and Academy voters, it looked as if Affleck was out of the race. But in the weeks leading up to the Oscars voting deadline, he campaigned doggedly. In hindsight, it worked, and he shook off the bad press that followed allegations of sexual harassment that took place on one of his sets.

 

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But how did La La Land lose the Best Picture prize to the underdog Moonlight?

It seems its lock on the night's top prize was more fragile than many believed. Since 2012, only one movie, Birdman (2014), has won both Best Picture and Best Director (for Alejandro Inarritu).

Only directors vote in the Best Director category, while everyone in the Academy votes for Best Picture. Since the bulk of the Academy is comprised of actors, the Best Picture prize tends to go to ensemble works that put acting first, while directors vote for a helmer's technique in mastering all aspects of a production, from sound to design to music and editing.

This year, it seems the Academy liked Moonlight's actors, while the directors felt that  La La Land showed off Damien Chazelle's ability as a film-maker.

La La Land's wins in Directing, Best Actress (for Stone) and in the music categories had it poised to win Best Picture, but Moonlight's shock win also pointed to how Academy voters are now more ready to shower love on movies featuring minorities.

It still has a way to go - the Denzel Washington-directed drama Fences won only a Best Supporting Actress award for Viola Davis, and the biopic Hidden Figures won nothing.

Also, Ms Ai-Ling Lee did not become the second Singaporean to win an Oscar. She was nominated in two categories - Best Sound Editing alongside Mildred Iatrou Morgan, and Best Sound Mixing with Andy Nelson and Steve A. Morrow.

She and Morgan are also the first all-female team to be nominated in their category.

If she had won, she would have followed Mr Nickson Fong, an animator, who in 2013 won a Scientific and Technical Achievement Award for a technique that revolutionised visual effects.

Moonlight's director, Barry Jenkins, receiving the award for Writing (Adapted Screenplay), saw the positives - while taking a hit at Mr Trump. "All you people out there who feel your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back... we have your back. And for the next four years, we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

•The 89th Annual Academy Awards airs again on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) tomorrow at 10.35pm, on Friday at 9pm and on Sunday at 4pm. It is available on HBO On Demand and HBO on StarHub Go.