Think about it! You have been tasked with making the final in a long list of star-studded presentations. You open the envelope and read a name of the woman who was just awarded “best actress,” not the title of the picture to be named “best picture.” Might it not occur to you to go to the emcee and say “there must be some mistake”? That didn’t happen on February 26, 2017. I want to posit why it may not have happened., “LaLa Land” was thought to be the “shoe-in,” so perhaps Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty reported what they thought the piece of paper had meant to say. Maybe they have been away from the4 bright lights too long and were genuinely befuddled.
Or maybe something much deeper and more insidious was at work. I’m not suggesting anything conspiratorial–that would be far-too calculated for what I believe happened. Since “LaLa Land” was the only truly “white” movie in the category, I have to wonder if part of the blatant mistake isn’t what Claudia Rankine writes about so often in her poems. It’s what I understand to be the banality of racism displayed by otherwise “liberal” white thinkers. Way back in 1963, the brilliant Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In this powerful book, Arendt argued that evil is simply a function of thoughtlessness, behaviors and words exhibited by ordinary people conforming to mass opinions. In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine forces us white liberals to recognize ourselves in her poetic characters who think or say or do this kind thoughtless things in relation to black people.
The film that was supposed to be announced as “best picture of 2017” was “Moonlight.” This movie is not just powerful or timely; it is unique in the single regard that there are no “white” people on the screen. This is a script where multitudes of audience members have no one with whom ti identify, no “touchstone” character to guide them in their responses to the larger story being portrayed. “Moonlight” falls, then, outside the comfort zone of most members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts as well. So, no matter what may have motivated its voting body to surprise the audience in the auditorium and across the country/world, those people should be credited for coloring (literally) outside the box. But, it needs to be said that making such a choice has to be categorized as a “surprise” vote speaks right back to Arendt’s theory about banality.
The most heinous part of what Dunaway and Beatty helped happen is this: Given the uniqueness of the moment in a time in American history when engrained racism could not be more blatantly obvious, the announcement about “Moonlight” should have been clean, so all of those associated with making this movie and all of us elated by its being chosen should have been able to rejoice directly, not “after the fact.” We still have “miles to go” in our journey out of our shameful history with black people and the Oscar awards didn’t put us an inch further along a path towards reparations. The last two letters in the acronym “snafu” most surely apply to the finale of the Oscar ceremony.