Why Joi McMillon, Moonlight Editor, Could Make Oscar History

Forget "Best Picture" or "Best Actress," at this year's Oscars, the film editing category is going to be the one to watch

Joi McMillon, who worked on Moonlight, is the first black woman to ever be nominated for a film editing Oscar

Joi McMillon, Oscar-nominated film editor for Moonlight (Photo courtesy of Joi McMillon and Elevation Pictures)

The 2017 Oscars will take place this Sunday (Feb. 26), but Moonlight‘s film editor is already celebrating a significant victory. Joi McMillon, 35, is the first black woman to ever be nominated in the feature film editing category.

If you just reread that sentence because it seems insane that there have been no black women named for this honour in 88 Oscar seasons, you are not alone.

After more than a decade in the biz, editing for everything from The Biggest Loser to Sausage Party, McMillon joined forces with Nat Sanders for Moonlight—and the result was pure magic. The film, which artfully portrays the challenges faced by young gay black men, is split into three sections, and McMillon mostly handled the film’s concluding segment.

The film hit theatres in October and has been rising in popularity and critical acclaim ever since, taking home the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama earlier this year. Moonlight is now up for eight Oscars and leading up to the big day, we caught up with McMillon to find out what this recognition means to her, her take on #OscarsSoWhite and what she’ll be wearing on the red carpet.

A scene from Moonlight, edited by Joi McMillon who is up for an Oscar

The film chronicles a young black boy and his struggle with his sexuality (Photo credit: David Bornfriend)

Education: Bachelor of fine arts in motion picture, television and recording arts from Florida State University 

Length of time as a professional media editor: 14 years

In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that one of the issues in film editing is that not a lot of people know what it entails. How would you describe your role?
Film editing is where the magic happens. People say that film editing is like the final rewrite. It’s where you can actually see the real story take shape because a lot of elements of the performances and cinematography are all coming together to finally reveal the film in its truest form. To me, that is magic. 

You worked primarily on the third and final segment of Moonlight. What are some of the factors that influenced how you edited that portion of the movie?
The biggest influence on this film is writer and director Barry Jenkins himself, because he has such a unique cinematic style. Having worked with him on other projects, I knew how he wanted to tell the story. As editors, we want to only enhance what they’ve done with the camera and draw the audience in even more. So the actual process of putting Moonlight together was not too tasking because the essence of the story was already there in the cinematography and the performances.

What does the Oscar nomination mean to you personally?
It’s awesome to be recognized by The Academy and to me, it’s still mind-blowing that it’s actually happened. Every time my family calls me a “history maker” I feel like it doesn’t even sound real. This is my first feature editing credit so to happen on the first time, it’s just so amazing. But I also hope that what’s happening to me is encouraging other women to be a part of the film process—the same way that I became excited about filmmaking when I was in high school. I hope that I’m inspiring others with this nomination.

In the past, you’ve talked about how being nominated was a “responsibility.” What did you mean by that?
A lot of people, for instance athletes, will say “Oh I’m just an athlete,” but when you’re in the spotlight, you’re more than that because you’ve exposed yourself and you have these younger generations looking up to you. To be on that platform, you’ve essentially taken on the task of being a role model, and the responsibility of that is a great one because you’re playing a role in shaping the lives of the generations coming up behind you. I recognize that responsibility, and definitely want to set a good example of the promise you can have as a feature editor.

Film editing tends to be a male-dominated industry. Did you face any challenges along the way as a woman in this field?
It’s hard to say that there aren’t any preconceived notions when I walk into a room. A lot of times when people see me they wonder if, as a black female, I do the job? I hope by receiving this nomination, it will knock down these barriers—but it’s not going to happen overnight. I wouldn’t say that my gender and my race deterred people from hiring me, although one of the things I heard often was that I didn’t have enough credits to my name. But essentially, editors can’t have enough credits before getting that first job. It’s a challenging thing because a lot of times people don’t like to take risks. I don’t think it would’ve been a risk to hire me, but essentially they felt it that way. It just had to be the right person that saw me, saw that I hadn’t done a feature yet, but said yes. It just so happened that it was my friend Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed Moonlight, who did that for me. I hope that my story will help people take a chance on other editors coming up behind me.

And you’re also helping to mentor that next generation as well, right?
Definitely. There’s a few people that I met through other editors and I’ve stayed in touch and put them up for either assistant editing positions or post production positions. That’s how you get a foot in the door, it’s basically who you know in the editing world. You can’t be afraid of contacting editors and saying, “Hi, I’m a fan and I would like to know if there’s anything you could do with my resume.”

Two young boys speak at the beginning of Moonlight, edited by Joi McMillon who is nominated for an Oscar

The coming-of-age story follows the evolving relationship between two young black boys, “Little” and Kevin (Photo credit: David Bornfriend)

Now that you’ve gotten this recognition for Moonlight, are you seeing more doors opening up for you in the industry?
Yeah. It used to be hard for me to get an interview and now people are sending me projects! So yes, a lot of doors have been opening up for me. For me, it’s looking for not necessarily the next project that I want to work on, but a quality filmmaker that I want to work with.

Last year there was a lot of controversy around #OscarsSoWhite and this year, people are saying the list of nominees is much more diverse. What is your take on this debate?
This year has been a step in the right direction, but we still have a way to go. I just saw someone post about how the discussion around diversity in the acting categories often doesn’t include a mention of Dev Patel. This issue is not black and white. There’s a rainbow of people who work in this industry, and I think sometimes people lose perspective on that. We do have a ways to go because representation of all ethnicities has not really come to its peak. Television is doing a really good job but feature films need to catch up. We’re getting there, but we’re not quite there yet.

This award season in particular, there seems to be a trend of award recipients using their acceptance speeches to make a statement. If you make it on stage at the Oscars, do you know what you might say?
I honestly don’t. I’m just praying that something profound will come out of my mouth at that time. To me, thinking about walking on that stage, I can’t quite grasp it.

Finally, I have to ask: have you thought about what you might wear on the red carpet?
I’m trying to? It’s funny because my little sister Jian was telling me that she already got her dress in Paris. And I was like, “Great, but what am I going to wear?” I’ll probably in New York in February trying to finalize what I’m going to wear.  

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