Moonlight Dominates Independent Spirit Awards

Barry Jenkins’ triptych about a young gay black man, growing up in Florida, has triumphed at the 32nd Annual Independent Spirit Awards. The ceremony, organised by and voted for by members of the Film Independent industry organisation honours achievements in lower-budget, independent American cinema.

Two of Moonlight’s stars, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris. Images Courtesy of WireImage and Film Independent

Moonlight picked up awards in all five of the competitive categories for which it was nominated, including Best Feature, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Unusually, though, for a film that was so dominant, it didn’t receive any recognition at all – not even nominations – in the individual acting categories, even though Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris remain among the favourites to take the supporting Oscars tomorrow night. Film Independent, instead, choose to give the film its Robert Altman Award, which collectively honours the director, casting director and ensemble cast, giving Moonlight a total of six trophies to take home.

Best Male Lead winner Casey Affleck. Photo: Steve McCambridge

The Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead went to Oscar-nominee Casey Affleck for Manchester By the Sea. He gave the most politically charged acceptance speech, telling the audience in the marquee on the beach at Santa Monica, “The policies  of this administration are abhorrent and they will not last. You don’t have to clap out of obligation — They’re really un-American.”

Isabelle Huppert repeated her Golden Globes success in the Best Female Lead category for Elle, a French, German and Belgian co-production which wouldn’t normally be eligible for the main Spirits categories. The supporting awards went to Molly Shannon for Other People and Ben Foster, chosen over the Oscar-nominee Jeff Bridges, to represent Hell or High Water.

As an organisation that promotes and helps younger film-makers, some of its main awards honour people regarded as being the future of the industry and The Witches, written and directed by Robert Eggers, repeated its success from the 2015 London Film Festival, to take the Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay awards.

The one award available to non-American films, the Best International Film, went to the lengthy but worthwhile German comedy Toni Erdmann, which wasn’t facing competition from Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, as it will be at tomorrow’s Oscars.

With the Spirits coming just a day before the film industry’s biggest day, and being staged just a few miles away from the Hollywood theatre where the Oscars will be handed out, Film Independent ensures that a large number of Oscar nominees will turn up to raise the profile of the event, which, by the nature of its lower budget nominees, is often unable to recognise many of the awards darlings of the year, such as La La Land, Fences and Hidden Figures. For this reason, and a very small crossover in voters, the Spirits are not seen as an indicator of Oscars success, but a rallying cry for people making films for $20 million or below – usually well below.

Here is the full list of Independent Spirit Award winners: 

Best Feature: 


Best Director: 

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight 

Best Screenplay: 

Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Story By), Moonlight 

Best First Feature: 

The Witch – Director: Robert Eggers 

Best First Screenplay:

Robert Eggers, The Witch 

John Cassavetes Award (For best feature made under $500,000):

Spa Night – Writer/Director: Andrew Ahn 

Best Supporting Female:

Molly Shannon, Other People

Best Supporting Male: 

Ben Foster, Hell or High Water

Best Female Lead:

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Male Lead:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Robert Altman Award: 


Best Cinematography:

James Laxton, Moonlight  

Best Editing:

Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders, Moonlight

Best International Film: 

Toni Erdmann (Germany and Romania) – Director: Maren Ade

Best Documentary: 

O.J.: Made in America – Director/Producer: Ezra Edelman

And the following awards were previously announced:

Jordana Mollick received the Piaget Producers Award. The award honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films. The annual award, in its 20th year, includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Piaget for the 10th year. Finalists for the award were Lisa Kjerulff, Melody C. Roscher and Craig Shilowich.

Anna Rose Holmer, director of The Fits, received the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award. The award recognizes talented filmmakers of singular vision who have not yet received appropriate recognition. The award is in its 23rd year and includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant funded by Kiehl’s Since 1851. Finalists for the award were Andrew Ahn, director of Spa Night, Claire Carré, director of Embers and Ingrid Jungermann, director of Women Who Kill.

Nanfu Wang, director of Hooligan Sparrow, received the Truer Than Fiction Award. The award is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not received significant recognition. The award is in its 22nd year and includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.  Finalists for the award were Kristi Jacobson, director of Solitary and Sara Jordenö, director of Kiki.