Behind 'Moonlight' win, a tricky question

Defying convention in 'Moonlight'
Defying convention in 'Moonlight'

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  • Issac Bailey: That a movie like "Moonlight" could be celebrated for its beauty and power and excellence is arguably the greatest achievement of #OscarsSoWhite
  • Still, the victory isn't yet won. The racial disparities in Hollywood have not disappeared over the past two years, he writes

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Diversity did not win the day during the 89th Academy Awards.

Excellence did.
Issac Bailey
The real win is not the number of black people who walked away with golden statutes on a historic night -- it's the stories, brilliantly told, that were rewarded.
A probing, uncomfortable movie centered on the life of a gay black man won best picture over the likes of "La La Land," not because one had a mostly-black cast and the other a mostly-white one, not because of affirmative action, not because of the need to make a political statement -- but rather because "Moonlight" was worthy of the title bestowed upon it.
I don't know if that's why academy voters chose it for the top prize, but the movie was clearly art at its finest. Not black art at its finest. Art. While I was personally partial to "Hidden Figures," "Moonlight" included the most daringly complex portrayal of a black man I've ever seen on film. The central character was a combination of vulnerable, hardened and sensual in a way I didn't believe was possible to accurately display on the screen. Even the colors that flooded through the camera lens, and how they enhanced the textures of the urban environment and skin tone of the boyish version of the protagonist, felt like characters in and of themselves.
That a movie like "Moonlight" could be celebrated for its beauty and power and excellence at the Academy Awards, which sets the standards by which cinema throughout the world is measured, is arguably the greatest achievement of #OscarsSoWhite and its creator, activist April Reign.
The thinking behind the hashtag that got Hollywood to pay attention to its lack of diversity like maybe nothing before it, and was at the center of discussion during last year's awards season, wasn't about assuring that black actors would win more awards.
It was simply about trying to assure that the best among us -- no matter skin color or ethnicity or sexuality -- would be provided equal opportunities to compete with groups that have long had the run of the place, have long had a leg up because, frankly, they were white. Whiteness has never guaranteed anyone in Hollywood, or elsewhere, success. But it assured that if they could work hard enough and make enough wise decisions and had enough talent, they had a realistic chance of reaching the top, while their black and brown counterparts could do all of that and never reach the summit.
"Viola, Mahershala, and the wins for Moonlight happened because they were DESERVED. Not because of #OscarSoWhite. I want that very clear," Reign said in a tweet Monday morning.
I also keep returning to a question raised by "Hidden Figures" -- whose real-life inspiration, 98-year-old scientist Katherine Johnson, appeared onstage with the stars of the film. Had Jim Crow not stunted or ignored homegrown talent because it came in the wrong skin color, would Americans Alan Shepard or John Glenn, not Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, have been the first man in space?
It's why Negro League fans will always wonder if Babe Ruth really is the greatest baseball player of all time. Ruth competed in a segregated league designated for white men, instead of facing the best competition from everywhere. Maybe he still would have been the best, but the lack of opportunity afforded top players from other races will forever leave that asterisk.
The pressure from Reign and #OscarSoWhite is helping remove that asterisk from Hollywood's top honors. Hollywood producers and writers should thank her for such an invaluable service.
Still, the victory isn't yet won. The racial disparities in Hollywood have not disappeared over the past two years, and the Oscars' increased diversity has yet to fully include Latino or Asian actors, directors, or films. And the fate of Nate Parker, a notable absence Sunday night, underscores other uncomfortable truths about racial difference.
Parker was initially celebrated for his work producing and acting in "The Birth of a Nation" and seemed a sure-fire Oscar nominee for this year. Then came stories about a past rape allegation, one he said was false and for which he was declared not guilty in court. (He did admit his actions were dishonorable, nonetheless.)
While his career maybe irreparably damaged, white actor Casey Affleck was called on stage Sunday night to claim the top acting prize many believed Parker was in line for before the old allegations resurfaced, even though Affleck's past includes sexual harassment and groping allegations (which he denies and which led to lawsuits that settled out of court).
It's reasonable to argue that the cases are too dissimilar to draw exact parallels, especially in light of some of the negative reviews Parker's film garnered.
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But the image of an imperfect white man receiving an award a black man wasn't even considered for because of his imperfections -- even in part -- shouldn't pass unnoticed.
Making sure skin color doesn't determine who can overcome stumbles, even ugly ones, might be the next diversity frontier.