In an America more divided than it has been in decades, among Hollywood celebrities and filmmakers who seem less than relevant to the national discussion, the film industry celebrated a harsh but ultimately healing fable about society’s most marginal figures. “Moonlight,” a drama about the coming of age of a young, black, gay man, was named best picture of 2016.
The award came as a double upset: First, as an unexpected win in a night dominated by “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s fond throwback to the movie musicals of classic Hollywood, and second as an out-of-nowhere change-up in the ceremony’s final moments, after “La La Land” was announced the best picture winner, only to have its producers’ congratulatory speeches halted when it was realized a mistake had been made and that “Moonlight” was the actual recipient of the top Oscar.
The error and the ensuing onstage collision of talent was a bizarre capstone to an evening that had gone more smoothly than Academy Awards tend to and that spread the Oscar wealth fairly evenly around Los Angeles’s Dolby Theatre.
While missing out on the evening’s major prize, “La La Land” — nominated for 14 Oscars — still picked up six awards, including best actress (Emma Stone), cinematography, score, song (“City of Stars”), and production design. At 32, Chazelle becomes the youngest best director in Oscar history. In accepting his directing Oscar, Chazelle thanked, among others, his wife, Olivia, saying “This was a movie about love, and I was lucky enough to fall in love while making it.”
Casey Affleck took home the best actor award for his portrayal of a North Shore working stiff coping with the aftermath of trauma in “Manchester by the Sea.” Accepting his Oscar, a shaggy Affleck seemed at a loss for words, saying “I’m really proud to be part of this community and I’m just dumbfounded to be included.”
A tearful Stone accepted her award and acknowledged her relative youth and inexperience, telling fellow nominees Meryl Streep, Ruth Negga, Natalie Portman, and Isabelle Huppert that “it has been the greatest honor just to stand alongside of you.”
As just about every awards handicapper expected, Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor for his portrayal of a fatherly drug dealer in “Moonlight,” and Viola Davis won best supporting actress for her long-suffering wife in “Fences.”
Ali, who vaulted to prominence in a number of films this year, thanked his teachers for telling him “it’s not about you, it’s about these characters,” as well as his wife, who gave birth to their first child on Feb. 22.
Davis, whose third nomination is a record for a black actress, took the stage to a standing ovation and cheers from her peers. “I became an artist and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life,” Davis said before thanking her parents, sisters, husband, and daughter.
“Manchester by the Sea” won not only for Affleck’s performance but for playwright-turned-director Kenneth Lonergan’s original screenplay. In addition to best picture and supporting actor, “Moonlight” won the award for adapted screenplay for the script by Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Barry Jenkins.
The evening’s politically charged moments were surprisingly few. Before presenting the award for best animated feature, actor Gael Garcia Bernal said, “As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I am against any wall that would divide us.” Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, director of the winner for best foreign language film “The Salesman,” chose not to attend the ceremonies in protest of the Trump administration’s attempted travel ban. In the acceptance statement that was read onstage, Farhadi reminded viewers that “filmmakers create empathy between us and others. We need it now more than ever.”
Otherwise, the statements were relegated to the attendee’s lapels, where blue ribbons signified support of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Oscar for best animated feature went to “Zootopia.” Two awards, for editing and sound mixing, went to Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge”; the latter award was especially welcome, as it marked sound mixer Kevin O’Connell’s first win after 21 nominations in a career stretching back to 1983’s “Terms of Endearment.”
The ceremony and the nominees it celebrated served as a mirror of a changing America, both on the screen and behind it. After the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversies of the previous two years, in which no performers of color were nominated in any acting category, this year’s slate of nominees appeared to right the ship a little.
Each acting category featured diversity and, even more critically, filmmakers of color were present in the best director category (Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight”) and in documentary features, where three of the five nominees were made by African-American directors. That last category was won by “O.J.: Made in America,” an eight-hour epic directed by Ezra Edelman, who dedicated the award to Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and to the victims of police violence.
This year also served notice that the ways in which movies reach audiences is changing, sometimes dramatically and sometimes under the radar. With six nominations going to “Manchester by the Sea,” that film’s distributor, Amazon, became the first streaming video service to make it into the Oscar race. It will not be the last; with Netflix’s recent purchase of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” a still-in-production mob movie starring Robert De Niro, and the company’s snapping up of recent Sundance award winner “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore,” streaming companies are flexing their ambitions for the future.
And, if nothing else, the moviegoers of New England should take pleasure in the fact that so many films and filmmakers had their geneses here. “Manchester by the Sea” shines a compassionate spotlight on the ways our locals bottle up their tragedies. “La La Land” is a labor of love that had its beginnings in Chazelle’s Harvard thesis project, the Boston-shot “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Viola Davis came up the hard way in Rhode Island; “O.J: Made in America” director Ezra Edelman was born in Boston before his mother, children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, whisked him off to Washington, D.C. Their roots remain visible in the performances and films that have flowered in their adulthood.
Ultimately, though, it was the surprise upset by “Moonlight” for which the 89th Academy Awards will be remembered. It was unclear what had caused the mix-up: co-presenter Warren Beatty claimed onstage that the card in the envelope he opened read Emma Stone for “La La Land,” and that he wasn’t quite sure how to respond. The “La La Land” producers were halfway through their acceptance speeches before they ceded the podium — in both bafflement and graciousness — to the “Moonlight” crew.
The film’s producer Adele Romanski spoke to the evening’s underlying sentiments — and to the fractures crisscrossing the American cultural landscape — when she claimed the win as “inspiring to little black boys and brown girls and other people who feel marginalized.”
And “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, blinking happily but uncertainly in the glow of his unexpected eleventh-hour triumph, said, “Even in my dreams, this could not be true.”
But it was.