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The Magic of ‘Moonlight’: To Be a Black Gay Man in America

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on his awards hopeful—a mesmerizing coming-of-age tale about a young gay man in a rough section of Miami.

“I never expected this thing to go the way it’s been going so far,” marvels filmmaker Barry Jenkins, whose lyrical drama Moonlight has captivated critics and entered the awards race with real buzz—and, perhaps, a real shot at upending the usual Oscar bait fare.

“So many people are seeing the film. They’re watching it. They’re feeling the characters.” He grins, a smile lighting up his face. “It’s fucking amazing.”

Jenkins, 36, is approaching the tail end of a whirlwind festival tour with his tremendously wrought Moonlight, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It began at Telluride last month before picking up momentum at an emotional Toronto Film Festival premiere, and has since inspired rapturous praise at festivals in New York, London, and Rome ahead of this week’s October 21 release.

As we talk in Beverly Hills, Jenkins is days away from taking Moonlight to perhaps an even more meaningful play date a world, or maybe even a lifetime, away—in Miami, where he’s from, the city that witnessed his own childhood joys and pain. Exactly a year ago this week he returned home a semi-stranger to film on location in Liberty City, in the housing projects he and McCraney both grew up in, living parallel lives going to the same schools decades before they’d actually meet.

When a friend passed Jenkins the play McCraney had written, a time-jumping search for the expression of an identity and sexuality not readily fostered when the playwright was growing up gay and black in Miami, Jenkins recognized a time and a place he knew because he’d lived it, too. As a young man he’d left Florida for San Francisco where he launched his film career with his acclaimed 2008 first feature Medicine for Melancholy. Now he lives in Los Angeles, two thousand miles away from his hometown.

“Once the trailer came out I think people started to perk up and realize, oh, these guys actually made a movie—a real movie,” he says, mulling the reaction he’ll get in Miami from the folks who knew that world and still live there. “People were pointing out different projects and stuff like that, just from the trailer. I think it’s going to be like a waking dream—not just for me but for some of the people who lived through some of these things, to get to see it on a big screen.”

It took Jenkins eight years to make his sophomore feature, the kind of factoid filmmakers loathe being reminded of. In the interim he stayed busy developing studio films and writing screenplays, including a time-traveling Stevie Wonder pic and a Bill Clegg memoir, but everything he was working on, he says, felt like other people’s projects.

“I cared about them, but they weren’t personal,” he admits. “Maybe I tricked myself because when I read this piece, it wasn’t my story. It was definitely Tarell’s story—but it was close enough that I could maybe still have one foot in emotionally, but at least that one foot would be hella personal.”

“Of course,” he adds, “there was no way to not put both feet in.”

Moonlight tracks the tumultuous emotional life of Chiron, son of a single crack-addicted mother, through three crucial periods. Alex Hibbert plays Chiron as an intensely quiet young boy nicknamed “Little”; Ashton Sanders plays him as a teen, wrestling with the first pangs of love, lust, and his burgeoning homosexuality; and Trevante Rhodes portrays him as an adult, still hiding his true self under layers of protection, paralyzed by the feelings that roil inside him.

Along the way, Chiron is guided and shaped by the adults in his life. House of Cards’ and Luke Cage’s Mahershala Ali turns in a powerful performance as Juan, a Cuban drug dealer whose kindness and trap lifestyle leave an indelible mark on the young Little. Janelle Monae offers a tender, no-nonsense maternal surrogate as Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, who offers Chiron the safe haven of acceptance he doesn’t have at home or in the rough hallways at school. And Naomie Harris is exceptionally heartbreaking as Paula, the addict mother succumbing to her own personal demons whose inability to nurture Chiron leaves the young boy unprotected from the world just when he needs her most.

As a straight man, Jenkins says he wrestled with giving himself permission to tell McCraney’s tale. And financing a quietly ferocious queer coming-of-age story told in three acts with no stars to carry the central thread was, on paper, a risky second film to attempt. “But there were two things. One, I thought what Tarell had written was beautiful,” he says. “There was legit honesty in it. There was some really dark shit in the play and to read it on the page and kind of have an idea of what it would look like 30 feet high, it was like, ‘This is potent.’ There were also some things from my childhood that I hadn’t really dealt with, that Tarell is very clearly dealing with in the piece.”

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“I see myself in Chiron,” he nods. “I do. And I think it was really important for me to do that, because I’m straight, the character is gay, Tarell is gay. And yet that’s one aspect of this character’s identity. And I feel like just because we have a different sexual orientation shouldn’t keep me from being able to identify with that character. When I say I wanted to be an ally, that I saw a means to be an active ally in adapting the piece, it was in preserving Tarell’s voice and translating that voice to the screen. The idea was: if you could change your fucking Facebook profile to this rainbow thing, then you could go out and tell these characters’ story. From that point on it was just, ‘How do I get this right?’ And then: ‘Don’t fuck it up.’”

The most difficult scenes for Jenkins to shoot were the ones with Harris, whose transformation into the volatile Paula hit bracingly close to home. Because of scheduling issues they shot all of her scenes, in three timelines opposite all three Chirons, in just three days while Harris was off-duty from promoting her James Bond movie Spectre.

“Undoubtedly the hardest part was working with Naomie,” Jenkins says, “because she is portraying my mom. She is a composite of my mom and Tarell’s mom—and she’s really fucking good. I direct an actor putting a pot on a stove the same way I do two kids making out. It’s the same thing. But when you have this amazingly well-trained thespian performing so well that she starts to look like your mom… at that point it became this different thing. We were living out this therapy session that I did not want to have.”

He describes Moonlight as a cinematic fever dream, a notion reflected in the heightened realism and impressionistic texture of the film, shot by cinematographer James Laxton in the rich, evocative hues of decayed neon dreams. “I felt like, ‘Oh—Tarell went through this too, so it’s his biography and I’ll just slide on the side.’ But Tarell’s not the one on set working with this actor. There’s no distance between the two of us. There’s no distance between these memories and myself.”

Critics have fervently embraced Moonlight, which sits at a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes consensus and leads the class of black stories expected to show up in force in the current Oscars race. Recently, Jenkins’ next scripting project, a biopic of Olympian boxer Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, was announced in the trades to great interest from Moonlight-watchers. He considers what that really means given the outcry over the Academy’s lack of diversity just a year ago.

“The really cool thing about #OscarsSoWhite and the diversity push is that it’s not a reaction at all,” he offers. “Movies take a long time. This movie took three and a half years. It’s great that they can all be framed in the way that you’re seeing it now because of #OscarsSoWhite, but really what you’re seeing is all these filmmakers who felt voiceless, or felt this lack of presence amongst different kinds of storytellers and different kinds of story modes. Those people took it upon themselves to create these stories, and now we’ve arrived at this moment because everybody else got fed up and created this uproar—and now the films exist to fulfill them, but they’re not a response to the uproar.”

“Now, if we get to next year and we don’t have the same sort of diverse array of diverse voices, then we’ll have to once again start a fucking uproar,” he smiles. “Because we should consistently be having this wide potpourri, this cornucopia, of different stories. People talk about Moonlight and the black experience. It does reflect the black experience, but it’s my experience and Tarell’s experience. Both of us grew up with a mom addicted to drugs in a very particular neighborhood at a very particular time.”

“It’s just one slice,” he says, cheering the other slices of African or African-American life represented this year in movies with serious awards buzz. “I love that you’ve got Hidden Figures—that’s another slice. You’ve got Fences—that’s another slice. You’ve got Birth of a Nation, Queen of Katwe… all these slices. And I like being a part of that pie. It’s a good damn feeling.”