Moonlight's Win: A Victory for Inclusivity but Not a Guarantee for Progress

By Trent Carlson

“There’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won.”

Undoubtedly one of the most shocking and memorable moments in the history of the Academy Awards gave us one of the most critical: a historic win for inclusivity. But what does that mean going forward?

As the first Best Picture winner to feature an all-black cast, the first Best Picture winner to be about a character who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and with Mahershala Ali becoming the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, Joi McMillon the first black woman nominated for Best Editing, and Barry Jenkins only the fourth black director nominated for Best Director, Moonlight has become a symbol of diversity in filmmaking and storytelling. The prevailing narrative seems to be that by breaking down the door, Moonlight has paved the way for an influx of movies not typically recognized by either the mainstream film community or the major awards shows.

However, history and social science may suggest something very different.

 In the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s phenomenal podcast, “Revisionist History,” he explains a concept called moral licensing. Generally speaking, moral licensing suggests that when a society makes a major progressive step, rather than following that step with continued progressive actions, they instead fall back into their old ways, convincing themselves they are progressive because of their one historic action.

Examples proving moral licensing to be true can be seen throughout history, most notably, as Gladwell discusses, in countries who have elected one, and only one, female head of government. However, since the episode centers around the art world in late-1800s England, clearly moral licensing has the potential to permeate filmmaking.

So how is this relevant to Moonlight and the future of inclusivity in Hollywood? Using the theory of moral licensing, one can infer that instead of countless films following Moonlight’s example – and winning awards for it – the industry may regress toward its traditional ways, and films such as Moonlight may experience just as much difficulty as they always have being supported and recognized. (Keep in mind, Moonlight had to be a beautiful, moving, near-perfect film to have this opportunity.) Moral licensing suggests that the next time there is an #oscarssowhite, the response won’t be an outcry for a fundamental, institutionalized change, but will instead be something along the lines of, “We’re not racist because Moonlight won, remember?”

This isn’t inevitable, however. Moving forward, film studios must make a conscious effort to encourage new and diverse stories, filmmakers must continue to present us with perspectives we have yet to see, and audiences must support these films. The film industry needs to recognize the responsibility it has to provide inclusive and accurate on-screen representation and strive to spread understanding and tolerance.

Moonlight is a tremendous achievement in filmmaking and social progress. We now must all carry the torch to ensure that Moonlight is not remembered as the only film of its kind to achieve this level of success, but rather earns the legacy of being the film that broke down the door and watched others continuously follow in its footsteps.