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Barry Jenkins: Oscars Gaffe Fueled Belief ‘Moonlight’ Only Won Because It’s a Black Film

Jenkins says, "When you get, 'Oh, it's because it was the Black film'...it's like no, motherfucker."




It’s been over four years since the infamous 89th Academy Awards, where “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as the Best Picture winner over the true victor “Moonlight,” and Barry Jenkins believes the gaffe will continue to be the most visible moment of his career for the next four years and beyond. Jenkins appeared on a recent episode of the “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered” podcast and looked back at the pros and cons of his Best Picture moment. While the gaffe created a boom of publicity around “Moonlight,” thus boosting its exposure, it was also frightening for Jenkins to endure in the room.

“Because we were awarded Best Picture in that way, that clip was shown so many places,” Jenkins said. “I have no doubt in my mind, out of anything I ever do in my life, and who knows what’s to come ahead, but that particular moment is going to be the most visible thing that’s ever associated with me, for better or for worse. The good thing is there were maybe people who had never heard of the film or who had seen it but did not know who I was or what I looked like. This movie played in a lot of small places… because of how loud [the Oscars] was, they did see it.”

Jenkins said he generally avoids watching the clip of the “La La Land”-“Moonlight” Best Picture announcement (February 26, the anniversary of the gaffe, is the rare exception), adding, “It didn’t feel special in the moment for me personally…it was actually quite frightening what was happening given everything going on in the world. I thought some very nefarious things were happening. I didn’t have the camera angles you guys had. It was almost like being in the parking lot at the let out and pop, pop, pop. That’s where my mind went.”

Because Jenkins never saw the envelope which listed “Moonlight” as the Best Picture winner and because the Oscars trophy does not have the winner engraved on it until after the ceremony, the filmmaker said it was impossible to tell if what was happening was real. Perhaps Jenkins’ biggest issue with the gaffe all these years later is that it perpetuated a false narrative that “Moonlight” only won Best Picture because the Academy wanted to honor a Black film.

“In a slightly sinister way, the fuck-up confirms or affirms some people’s unsavory thoughts about why the film was awarded Best Picture,” the filmmaker said. “If you did the blind taste test of films and wrote down all the accolades this film achieved that year, whether it be the ratings, the reviews, all of these things, [then ‘Moonlight’ wins]. If we were at the NFL Combine, and I tell you, ‘This player has these measures and was drafted number one,’ you wouldn’t doubt it at all. And yet, when you get into ‘Oh, it’s because it was the Black film’…it’s like no, motherfucker. We ran a [4.2 second 40-yard dash], and we ran it barefoot because we didn’t have the benefits of all that private school Academy training.”

The silver lining of Jenkins’ whirlwind Oscars occurred when he and “Moonlight” screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney went back home to Florida and stood in the rubble of where their childhood homes used to be. “Every now and then it hits me that holy shit two cats who grew up here on welfare cheese in the 1980s…we get on stage and got Oscars handed to us and everyone in the room stood up on their feet…The room was so full.”

Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” debuts all 10 episodes at once May 14 on Amazon Prime Video. Listen to Jenkins’ full interview on the “Jemele Hill Is Unbothered” podcast here.

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