Breaking with what in recent editions served as a preview to the Academy Awards, the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards delivered in political statements, humor and winners that highlighted—as they should—films that have been pushed aside at other award stages for more crowd-pleasing, perhaps less challenging, fare.
Barry Jenkins was the most exclaimed name throughout the Santa Monica-based event, as Moonlight collected a slew of awards. The director, cast and casting director Yesi Ramirez were together awarded the Spirit’s 10th annual Robert Altman Award. Without Oscar-frontrunner La La Land in its way, the most critically acclaimed film of last year—a landmark for African American storytellers—stood victorious.
For Jenkins’ $1.5 million stunner, the afternoon began with the prize for Best Editing awarded to Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders (the former making history by becoming the first black woman to win in this category). Although they face fierce competition on Sunday, Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who holds Moonlight’s story credit, and DP James Laxton walked away with the Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography accolades respectively.
Firmly cementing its status as the leading distributor of visionary American independent films, A24 was the most popular kid at the party, not only because of Moonlight’s smashing success, but also thanks to Robert Eggers double-win for Best First Screenplay and Best First Feature for period-horror The Witch. The distributor also earned a massive amount of combined nominations for other 2016 films: Swiss Army Man, American Honey, Morris from America and 20th Century Women.
Spewing sharp observations on the troubled political climate the country currently faces, hosts Nick Kroll and John Mulaney elicited comedy even from the darkest of affairs while poking fun at other award shows. Their gags included a fake Technical Independent Spirit Awards and a reverse “In Memoriam” musical moment, lead by Andy Sandberg impersonating Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder with the song “Alive.” Winners utilized the spotlight to express their disapproval of the new administration’s discriminatory policies and actions that threaten the arts and the press. Calls to action and demands for more inclusiveness, regardless of faith, race or sexual orientation, were widespread, which paired with most artists exalting the importance of independent cinema and its voices in regressive dark times.
Several major Oscar contenders were out of the running at the Spirits in the acting categories, which resulted in a couple refreshingly different wins. Beating Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges, Hell or High Water’s Ben Foster was named Best Supporting Male. Foster was quick to note that he is not used to being at a podium being recognized. A show-stopping highlight came from Molly Shannon, whose energetic speech after winning Best Supporting Female for Other People resulted in ecstatic cheers, which culminated when the actress finished off with her Superstar move.
Just hours after winning at Césat Awards in her native France, Isabelle Huppert descended onto the Independent Spirit Awards stage to receive the Best Female Lead statuette for Elle. As she has all season, she expressed gratitude for director Paul Verhoeven’s fearlessness and reminded the audience that cinema has been grounded on independence and out-of-the-box thinking right from the start.
Representing Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea as its only win, Casey Affleck was crowned Best Lead Actor over fellow Oscar-nominee Viggo Mortensen. Affleck spoke about Trump’s discriminatory agenda and the need to resist in order to protect those affected.
Strand Releasing’s Spa Night, directed by Andrew Ahn, about a Koren-American gay young man in Los Angeles, was presented with the John Cassavetes Award for a film made for under half a million. The feature is certainly a film that, alongside Jenkins’, stands as a bastion for representation.
Among the nominees for Best International Film, only Maren Ade’s revered Toni Erdmann also has a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nomination. As the eventual winner, Ade denounced the lack of female directors in the film industry across the globe and the imperative need for a solution. In the press room, she reiterated she will not be involved, in any capacity, in the production of the American remake of her film.
Ezra Edelman’s expansive documentary OJ: Made in America chalked up another victory as Best Documentary. The filmmaker explained that he always envisioned the project as a cohesive, singular piece to be experienced theatrically, but he is not opposed to people watching it episodically on handheld devices as long as its complex message reaches people.
As expected even before the festivities by the beach commenced, Barry Jenkins’ name was called two more times near the end, once for Best Director, and another for Best Film, for which his entire team joined him in celebration. It’s easy to overestimate the power of award ceremonies, but this year the Independent Spirit Awards were a clear and refreshing example of a community coming together to be a force against bigotry and a place for those who have been told they don’t belong. Here the limelight was all theirs, for once. MM
The Independent Spirit Awards took place February 25, 2017 in Santa Monica, California.