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‘Moonlight’ director Barry Jenkins: ‘Even in my dreams, this could not be true.’

The best Oscar speeches, from Barry Jenkins to Viola Davis

Could there be a more bizarre, unexpected way to cap this roller coaster of an awards season — in which everything was political — than Sunday night’s Oscar envelope fiasco?

It appeared that yet another institution, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was once again going to slight black artists by denying them the biggest prize of the evening, just two weeks after we all witnessed Beyoncé lose the Grammy for Album of the Year to a genuinely stunned Adele. This time, it would be La La Land’s producers walking away with the best pictures Oscar instead of Moonlight’s.

That, at least, would have been heartbreakingly predictable. But in a turn no one saw coming, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, on stage to announce the best picture winner, and victims of some sort of envelope mishap, wrongly announced La La Land as the winner. All three La La Land producers gave their acceptance speeches as headset-wearing members of the television production crew could be seen coming onto the stage. It was producer Jordan Horowitz who took to the mic to say “I’m sorry — no. There’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke. Come up here.”

Horowitz held up the correct envelope, which indeed showed Moonlight and its producers, Adele Romanski, Jeremy Kleiner, and Dede Gardner, as winners of the best picture Oscar. Beatty approached the microphone to explain what happened as actors Alex Hibbert and Jharrel Jerome embraced behind him. “I want to tell you what happened,” Beatty said. “I opened the envelope and it said, ‘Emma Stone, La La Land.’ That’s why I took such a long look at Faye and at you. I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

Until that point, it was possible to say that actress Viola Davis had given the most emotional, affecting speech of the night. But then Moonlight director Barry Jenkins had to collect himself in the midst of the Dada-esque events taking place around him and actually thank someone for the biggest award of the evening.

“I’m sorry — no. There’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture. This is not a joke. Come up here.”

“Very clearly — very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true,” Jenkins said. “But to hell with it. I’m done with dreams, ’cause this is true. Oh, my goodness.” Janelle Monàe pumped her arms behind Jenkins as Romanski moved into position to speak.

It was a history-making sort of evening.

Mahershala Ali, who won the best supporting actor prize for his role as Juan in Moonlight, became the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award. With her best supporting actress win for her turn as Rose Maxson in Fences, Davis became the second black woman, after Whoopi Goldberg, to boast an Oscar, Tony, and Emmy. She’s the only black woman to have won all three in performance categories. With their win for best adapted screenplay, Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney marked the first time multiple black writers won an Oscar in the same year.

While the kerfuffle surrounding the best picture prize did not make for a particularly eloquent way to close the evening, Jenkins and McCraney had an opportunity earlier in the evening to make their points, and they seized it with their screenwriting win.

“I tell my students that I teach sometimes, be in love with the process not the result but I really wanted this result because a bajillion people are watching and all you people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected, the academy has your back, the ACLU has your back, we have your back,” Jenkins said. “And for the next four years, we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.”

McCraney, who was recently named chair of the playwriting department at Yale School of Drama, was more visibly emotional as he picked up Jenkins’ message and ran with it, thanking his mother, on whom the character of Paula, played by Naomie Harris, was partially based. “I just want to echo everything you just said and all those thanks but I also want to say thank God for my mother who proved to me through her struggles and the struggles that Naomie Harris portrayed for all of you that we can really be here and be somebody,” McCraney said. “Two boys from Liberty City, up here on this stage, representing 305. This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves — we’re trying to show you, you and us.”

“O, captain, my captain, Denzel Washington. Thank you for putting two entities in the driving seat: August and God.”

Somehow, even after her eloquent speech evoking Harriet Tubman when she won the Emmy in 2015 for playing Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder, Davis managed to top herself last night, this time drawing on Walt Whitman as she thanked her Fences co-star and director Denzel Washington.

“You know, there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that’s the graveyard,” Davis began, letting us know from the start she was about to deliver a dissertation of sorts. “People ask me all the time, ‘What kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?’ And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. So here’s to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people.”

“O, captain, my captain, Denzel Washington. Thank you for putting two entities in the driving seat: August and God,” Davis continued, going through a list of people before coming to her sister, Deloris Davis Grant. “We were rich white women in the tea party games. Thank you for the imagination.”

The common thread through the evening, from award winners to presenters alike, was a clear and consistent repudiation of the president and his policies and an embrace of diversity. Even in his speech for the best picture Oscar he ultimately did not win, Horowitz pushed for diverse storytelling. But the most forceful message came from a director who wasn’t even in the room, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won the Oscar for best foreign-language film for The Salesman.

Because of its initial broad application, affecting both green card and valid visa holders, President Donald Trump’s executive order banning entry to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries including Iran, would have prevented Farhadi from attending the Oscars. The Ninth Circuit court of appeals upheld a lower court decision blocking the ban, thus clearing a path for Farhadi and other vetted travelers from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Syria to come the the U.S. But Farhadi, now a two-time Academy Award-winning director (he won for a Separation in 2012), elected to skip the Oscars in protest.

Iranian American engineer Anousheh Ansari read a statement on Farhadi’s behalf. “I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight,” she read. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression.

“Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever. Thank you on behalf of Mr. Farhadi.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.