Why didn't Barry Jenkins win best director at the 2017 Oscars?
In the most deliciously absurd twist, Moonlight snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at Sunday night's Oscars. After Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway accidentally called La La Land as the best picture of 2017, producer Jordan Horowitz emphatically corrected the record: "Moonlight! You guys won best picture!"
It was a twist that seemed too good to be true, particularly since La La Land helmer Damien Chazelle had just won the best director prize. Historically, the best picture and best director prizes have correlated often, so it was a safe bet that La La Land would win both. But this now raises a question: Why didn't Barry Jenkins win best director?
Though the director didn't go home empty-handed — he won best adapted screenplay alongside Tarell Alvin McCraney — he didn't win a prize for his directorial vision of Moonlight. He wasn't one of the producers up for best picture, so he didn't win an Oscar for that category, either.
It's an odd idea, that the person behind this beautiful, best picture-worthy movie's whole ethos and aesthetic could not actually win an Oscar for that. But it's not unheard of. In fact, in the last five years, the best picture and best director prizes have diverged four times. Argo won for picture in 2013 while Life of Pi's Ang Lee won director. In 2014, 12 Years a Slave won best picture, while Gravity's Alfonso Cuarón won for director. Again in 2016, Spotlight took the top prize, but Alejandro G. Iñárritu won the gold for director for The Revenant.
2015 was the only break from this pattern: Iñárritu won Oscars for both directing and producing the best picture winner, The Revenant. But the year to focus on here is actually 2014 — the first time a black director's film won best picture. Just like this year, while McQueen's film won, the black director behind the camera was passed over for his own prize. (Unlike Jenkins, McQueen was a producer on 12 Years a Slave and won a best picture Oscar.)
It's optically pretty mind-boggling that we now have two best pictures directed by black men in four years, yet we're still waiting on a black best director winner. What else could McQueen or Jenkins have done to take home gold? They literally directed the best movie of the year, according to the Oscars. It's hard to see why the vote is splitting.
But looking at the last five years, there is a clear pattern emerging. Best director is now generally going to the most technically impressive nominee, not just the best picture winner. The Revenant, a survival epic, beat Spotlight, a fastidious film that was more an achievement of writing and acting. Similarly, both Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave lost best director to visual spectacles in the dance-heavy La La Land and the outer space marvel Gravity.
Argo versus Life of Pi was an outlier, as Argo's Ben Affleck didn't even earn a best director nomination. But even then, Life of Pi was a marvel of visual effects and grand vision. It's notable that the one time in the last five years that the two prizes matched, the winner was most visually impressive: Birdman.
12 Years a Slave and Moonlight are both deeply specific movies told from the perspective of their directors. McQueen and Jenkins' personal experiences informed their work, and thus makes them both impressive directors. But the way Oscar voters seem to be deciding best director right now, it makes sense that they both lost.
Still, this can't continue on much longer. The black visionaries behind films like Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave deserve credit for crafting their best picture-winning movies. Sunday night's shocking twist win is worth celebrating, but once again, this is a reminder that #OscarsSoWhite is hardly over.