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Oscars 2017: Moonlight won best picture (eventually), but is it actually any good?

Andre Holland as Kevin and Trevante Rhodes as Black on Moonlight. Alex Hibbert (left) as Chiron and Mahershala Ali as Juan.
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Mahershala Ali poses in the press room with the award for best actor in a supporting role for “Moonlight” at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP) Photo: Jordan Strauss

By now, the entire Western world knows they gave the best picture Oscar (briefly at least) to the wrong film on Monday. But what about the flipside of that equation? Did they eventually give it to the right one?

Most cinemagoers can’t answer that question because Moonlight is one of the least-seen best picture winners in Oscar history.

In , it has taken barely $1 million since opening on 26 screens a month ago. With the average n ticket costing $13.60, that’s about 74,000 paying customers.

In the US, it had taken $US23 million ($A30 million) by Oscar day. Their average ticket price is $US8.73, suggesting an audience of 2.63 million or so. Even so, that’s just 0.82 per cent of the population.

Only one best picture winner – The Hurt Locker, in 2010 – had done less business than Moonlight at the time of its win, a shade under $US15 million (worldwide, and mostly post-Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film eventually crawled to $US49 million). La La Land, by contrast, has so far taken $US369 million.

In all the confusion and excitement over Monday’s stuff-up, it was easy to lose sight of how significant Moonlight’s win really was – and not just because of the money.

This is a morally and formally challenging movie about a young gay black man journeying from bullied child to troubled teen to gangsta. How many gay black men have you seen on film before? How many gay black gangsters?

The central character, Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone), is played by three different actors at three different ages: as a boy of eight or so, nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert); as a teenager (Ashton Sanders); and as a grown man who has taken the name Black (Trevante Rhodes).

All three performances are remarkable, though it was Mahershala Ali who won the best supporting actor Oscar for his turn as Juan, the Miami drug dealer who becomes a kind of father figure and, eventually, role model for the fatherless and near-enough motherless Little after rescuing him from a gang of neighbourhood bullies.

The story is structured in three acts (the screenplay was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue; McCraney and director Barry Jenkins also won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay) but it is totally filmic, playing with framing, focus, light and sound to create a picture of dislocation, disorientation, fractured identity. The very structure of the thing helps us understand Chiron never had a chance to become whole.

Moonlight doesn’t glamorise the drug life, but it does probe beneath the cliches to suggest that sometimes a dealer may be something other than a monster (it is, though, a lot less forgiving of addicts, presumably because its crack-addicted mother is drawn so closely from McCraney’s and Jenkins’ own life experiences).

To return for a moment to the messy business of money: Moonlight reportedly cost just $1.5 million to make. It could hardly be at a greater remove from the bloated budgets and empty effects of so much Hollywood moviemaking. And at that price, it’s already looking like a canny bit of business for Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, which has just collected its second best picture Oscar in four years (after 12 Years a Slave in 2014), and its fourth straight nomination in the category.

After two years of #oscarssowhite controversy, there was a whiff this year of an over-correction. Certainly the presence of Hidden Figures – crowd-pleaser though it is – among the best picture nominees was a surprise, and Fences was more deserving of a Tony than an Oscar (Viola Davis’ win was thoroughly deserved, though).

But there was nothing tokenistic about Moonlight’s success. It’s as bold, brave and innovative a piece of filmmaking as you’re likely to see this year.

All that’s left now is for people to do just that. See it.

Karl Quinn is on facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin

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