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How did Moonlight pull off its Oscar upset?

A look beyond the controversy at the film that claimed the top prize

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While Sunday's Oscar broadcast has already inscribed itself in history thanks to its comically absurd final moments, there is an important story that's been lost in all the drama that's followed; how exactly did Moonlight emerge victorious?

Everybody, and I mean everybody, had expected La La Land to emerge victorious for the top prize. Both heralded by critics and a box office success, La La seemed like a classic Oscar unicorn: a film that had the nostalgia necessary to appease older voters, but also was "hip" enough to get younger viewers excited as well. This thinking dominated the entire awards season as the film wrapped up major wins including the PGA Best Picture prize, the Critics' Choice award, and a record number of Golden Globes. Moonlight meanwhile found itself collecting many of the smaller critic's prizes but consistently was left in the shadows during the major awards shows, usually only picking up prizes for Mahershala Ali's performance and it's screenplay.

The first thing to consider in this mystery is the unique system of voting the Oscars use. Rather than a traditional ballot in which every voter just selects their favorite film, the Oscars use a preferential ballot where voters rank every movie from their favorite to least favorite film. As the votes are counted, films with the least amount of support are eliminated and their voters' support are transferred to their second or third choice film until a consensus is reached. This means that even if a film like La La Land received the largest number of first place votes, if many voters also ranked it low, it could ultimately receive less support than if Moonlight was unanimously placed in voters' top 3 favorite movies of the year.

While many expected this system to actually help La La given its crowd-pleasing nature, the film instead emerged as a lightning rod of division amongst the film community. For every person who was enchanted, there was another who came away feeling it was overhyped or put off by the film's sense of privilege or lack of diversity Do not forget that despite the campaigning and politicking, Moonlight was almost universally beloved critically, and boasted the highest per screen box office gross of the year.

Another possible reason for the upset was the infusion of a younger and more diverse Academy voting block. Being the first year since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, a significant amount of new voters were welcomed to help bring a stronger sense of representation. Because of this, it's possible the voting body's tastes could be shifting away from the older generations tendency of rewarding self-congratulatory Hollywood stories like The Artist or Birdman and instead sought out more innovative and bold storytelling. It's also possible that after last year's controversy, voters may have felt too self-conscious to pass over Moonlight for slighter fare like La La Land.

We may never know exactly how Moonlight pulled off the monumental upset, but it's important to recognize that there is more to the film than merely its surprise victory. As stories continue to pour this week about the controversy, it's important to not lose sight of how deserving this deeply wrenching, lovingly crafted film was of the prize. No matter how the winner was read, the film marks an exciting new direction for the nearly 90-year-old awards show as well as an incredible underdog story.

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