Oscars 2017: Why the ‘Moonlight’ Best Picture Win Is a Really Big Deal

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The poster for “Moonlight” features its lead character, Chiron. (Photo: A24)

In the wake of the unprecedented Best Picture announcement snafu, the real winner has been robbed of the headline it deserved: Moonlight made history last night. The night’s biggest prize went to Barry Jenkins’s drama about three phases in the life of a gay African-American male — played as an adult by Trevante Rhodes, as a teenager by Ashton Sanders, and a boy by Alex Hibbert. Although the much-loved film was a favorite of critics, it was not the expected Best Picture winner; conventional wisdom put the odds on La La Land. Here are just a few of the ways Moonlight broke the mold.

Moonlight is the first Best Picture winner with an all-black cast.

Seems crazy, but no movie with an entirely nonwhite cast ever won the night’s biggest award. (The 2013 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, had a predominantly black cast, but the black actors shared screen time with a significant number of white actors.)

Moonlight is the first film with a gay lead character to win Best Picture.

Again, this seems like something that already happened — but no. (Brokeback Mountain, Milk, Dallas Buyers Club, and Cabaret were all nominated and lost.) GLAAD has officially declared Moonlight, based on a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who shared the adapted screenplay award with Jenkins), “the first LGBTQ film to win the Best Picture Oscar.”

Watch the mixup and the acceptance speech:

Moonlight is the first Best Picture winner since Rocky to be made for such a small budget.

Other films with modest budgets have won Best Picture, including last year’s winner, Spotlight ($15 million) and the 2009 winner, The Hurt Locker ($11 million). But Moonlight‘s budget is shockingly small by Hollywood standards — just $1.5 million. According to film historian Mark Harris, there hasn’t been such a low-budget Best Picture winner since Rocky, exactly 40 years ago.

On top of all this, Moonlight is a revolutionary choice in that it’s not a sweeping statement about the hardship of being black or gay in America; it’s the story of one man who longs for love and connection, and the film respects and celebrates the person he is. This isn’t the kind of movie that usually receives accolades in Hollywood, and its Oscar success may open opportunities for more stories — and winners — that we haven’t seen before.

Watch our interview with the Moonlight cast:

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