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How Moonlight Pulled off Its Academy Awards Miracle

How Moonlight Pulled off Its Academy Awards Miracle

Few people understand the importance of the arts and cultural sector better than Cameron Bailey. The artistic director of one of the world’s biggest and most important film festivals, Cameron brings a comprehensive wealth of experience to his position, and under his lead the festival continues to grow in size and significance every year. In the column below, Cameron charts the path of Moonlight, from it’s fall festival screenings to its Best Picture Oscar last Sunday night:

From last June to last Sunday, it was like a secret I wanted both to share and to protect. In the 25 years I’ve been choosing films to present to audiences, I’ve never experienced anything like Moonlight. In the wake of the film’s Oscar triumph, here are highlights from an incredible eight-month journey.

April 27, 2016: Toronto International Film Festival programmer Jane Schoettle had selected Barry Jenkins’s first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, for the 2008 festival. In April, Barry told us he was about six weeks from finishing his follow-up. “Can’t wait for you guys to see it,” he wrote.

June 10: A24, the upstart U.S. film distributor behind Spring Breakers and Room, sent Moonlight up from New York. We started the day with it, at 9 a.m. in the fifth-floor screening room at TIFF Bell Lightbox. I may have held my breath through the whole 111 minutes, thinking: I love this, don’t disappoint me! It didn’t. As soon as it was over, I rushed to my desk. “Barry, I’ve just finished watching Moonlight,” I wrote. “I am floored. It is so beautiful, so moving, so full of emotional tension. I can’t tell you the whole range of emotions I went through watching it. Most of all, at the end, I felt gratitude. You showed me people and moments that I never see on screen.” Too much? Maybe, but something had broken open. I’ve watched just about every human activity I can imagine on screen, but I’d never seen such tenderness between black men.

June 23: Negotiations. I wanted Moonlight for TIFF’s new, competitive Platform section, designed to showcase original voices in cinema. I had to convince A24, producers Plan B and especially Barry. We e-mailed, we got on the phone and then we had to let them work it out. On June 23, I got news that Barry was open to the idea. Not long after, we confirmed the international premiere of Moonlight in Platform and set a date for Saturday, Sept. 10. Prime time.

Aug. 11: The first trailer dropped and sparked immediate excitement on Twitter, which I shamelessly stoke: “Also in #TIFF16’s Platform section: MOONLIGHT. Get on the bandwagon while there’s still room.”

Sept. 3: Moonlight premieres at the Telluride Film Festival. The excitement pours down from the mountains and straight into my tweets. “#Telluride word on MOONLIGHT is out. We’re gonna need a bigger bandwagon.”

Sept. 7: A New York Times article proves crucial in positioning Moonlight not simply as one of many African-American films completed in the aftermath of #OscarsSoWhite. My small contribution to Brooks Barnes’s piece: “The histories that shape the black experience are crucial to Moonlight, but they don’t contain it, any more than Foxcatcher and Whiplash should be defined mainly as movies about the white experience.” Bringing art-house cinephiles together with the black and LGBTQ audiences turns out to have been part of the magic of this movie’s early reception.

Sept. 10: I call Barry onto the stage at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre. He gives a beautiful introduction, taking care to credit author Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play upon which Moonlight is based. He finishes with a phrase you hear a lot from him: “Much love.” Having spent some time with Barry, it’s clear he means it. There is a generous intelligence to how Barry communicates – warm, positive, humble and sometimes hilarious.

Sept. 11: 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and the house is packed. Now, people were rushing to witness what they’d begun hearing so much about. The Q&A with Barry and his cast was full of emotion and some kind of shared wonder. Was this really happening? Did everybody really love this film as much as it seemed?

Sept. 15: Not everybody. When our Platform jury met to deliberate, Moonlight failed to make an impression. Jurors Brian De Palma, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and Zhang Ziyi offered respectful appraisals of the film, but there was none of the intense emotion I’d felt from our public audiences. Ultimately, our reactions to films are personal. The jury’s decision went to Pablo Larrain’s superb Jackie.

Oct. 29: On Oct. 28, Canadian distributor Elevation opened Moonlight theatrically at the Lightbox. On that Saturday, I hosted a postscreening open conversation in our members’ lounge and invited friends and colleagues, mostly from Toronto’s black arts community. I figured the film’s emotion, aesthetics and exploration of black masculinity needed this crowd to embrace it first. People gathered and they testified. The floodgates were beginning to open.

Nov. 18: In November, Barry joined us from a hotel in Detroit for a Skype Q&A after the film. By now, Moonlight was being acclaimed by critics as one of the best films of the year. A month later, it was being anointed by many critics’ groups, along with the film that would be its constant companion in awards season, La La Land. I keep up with Barry by following his social-media posts about doing laundry. Barry clearly loves laundry the way some people love gardening, or fly fishing. It’s therapy, mastery, communion.

Jan. 8: Moonlight wins best motion picture – drama at the Golden Globes and La La Land wins best motion picture – musical or comedy. The rivalry is set, although it plays out more among pundits than the filmmakers themselves.

Feb. 16: By February, Moonlight has gone beyond the cinephile, black and LGBTQ audiences that first embraced it to become a genuine phenomenon. I host a Lightbox screening for bankers.

Feb. 23: In Los Angeles for the final lap of awards season, I see Barry at the party hosted by his distributor, A24. The room is crowded and I barely know what to say to him. How to condense months of living with his film into cocktail chat? A journalist snaps a photo of the two of us talking and I realize again how much we can resemble each other: round, brown faces, bald heads, big glasses. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said – there’s an unacknowledged power that comes from seeing yourself in someone who’s made great, popular art. Some of us carry vast reserves of that power, some almost none.

Feb. 25: Moonlight sweeps the Film Independent Spirit Awards, winning all six prizes it was up for, including best feature. Word in the huge Spirits tent in Santa Monica, Calif., is still that La La Land is the favourite to win the next night at the Oscars, but only the accountants know for sure.

Feb. 26: Oscar night. The show was a dazzling experience but nothing prepared me for the final minutes. When Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as best picture, a group of that film’s supporters roared behind me. I was on the verge of tweeting congratulations to the film that had won our festival’s People’s Choice Award back in September, when my colleague nudged me. It took me a second. Why were there so many people on stage? When it finally sank in, our collective response was, “Wait, what?” It was thrilling and frustrating all at once, as if that beautiful secret from months ago had been burped out at someone else’s dinner party.

In the end, it hardly matters. Moonlight pulled off a miracle.

Cameron Bailey/Globe and Mail/March, 2017