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How Moonlight’s creators made a universally acclaimed window into gay black identity

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The Best Picture winner is heavily autobiographical, but stylized as well

A24

Since the moment Barry Jenkins’ feature film Moonlight debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in November 2016, it was a critical darling, with rave reviews following it from film festivals to theatrical release to the awards-show circuit, where it’s racked up recognitions including Best Picture, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay at the Academy Awards. The film has met with nearly universal acclaim for its unusually formal yet daring approach to the familiar ground of the coming-of-age story. Writer-director Barry Jenkins based the film on Tarell McCraney’s autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which follows a gay black character through key moments in boyhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Jenkins’ film restructured the play into three distinct acts, set to a mixture of hip-hop and powerful orchestral music, with the central character operating under different nicknames and identities in each act.

As a child, Little (Alex Hibbert) is nearly silent, beaten into submission by boys his age who suspect him of effeminacy. His addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is no help, but he finds shelter with a local drug dealer (House Of Cards’ Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (singer Janelle Monáe). As a teenager, he goes by Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and he deals with bullies and his mother in new ways. And as a heavily muscled adult with the street name Black (Trevante Rhodes), he has a commanding presence that keeps the world at bay, but he’s no less shy and withdrawn. Moonlight is an emotional, evocative piece, and it has little in common with Jenkins’ other, more prosaic film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy. But both films deal with the struggle for black identity, and both explore it through conversation. Both films acknowledge the protagonists’ confusion and frustration, and explore the way different groups enforce their stereotypes and resist any attempts at individuality. I spoke to Jenkins and McCraney about how the play became the film, how music and framing tell the story, and how they navigated the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

Barry, you’ve said the protagonist in this film doesn't participate in the world. What are the challenges of telling a story about someone who's so withdrawn?

Barry Jenkins: It was what drew me to the character the most, as someone who also grew up, in a way, without participating in the world. It presented a great opportunity to immerse the audience in what that feels like, to always be present, and yet not be present at the same time. And as the film goes on, we draw the audience deeper and deeper into that mind state. I saw it as a really interesting challenge, and I relished it.

It sounds like you view the character differently. How did you navigate that when you were adapting the play for the film? How did you talk about this character together?

Tarell McCraney: Well, as Barry stated, he wanted to immerse the audience into Chiron’s retracting, his inner world. He shot the movie from the standpoint of the character, so he’s inviting you inside the mind of a person who’s engaged in the world in a different way than we normally see. We were always on the same page with that. And what he did with that landscape, that soundscape, was beautiful and fascinating.

BJ: My approach isn't so much intellectual in that way. The fact that Chiron exists makes him a participant, undoubtedly. I think his behavior is passive, and I don’t think it’s passive by choice, either. I think it arises from the situation his character is in.

Both of your feature films are expressly about black characters defining their identities, and how they fit into the world. Is there any teaching element to these stories, any degree to which you want to help other people work through who they are and how they face the world?

BJ: I don't feel like the movie is meant, from my standpoint, or Tarell’s, as an objective, to be a teaching point or a sounding board or a lesson for anyone. When the characters came to me, my goal was to do justice by them. Although I do think the fact that the character is on this quest to figure who the hell he is, despite a world trying to tell him all the time who he is, the fact that that aligned very well with my previous work was part of the reason why I thought I could bring some authorship to it. That I could align my voice with Tarell’s. So on that point, I definitely agree, despite these two films being very, very different, the protagonists are working toward the same end.

A24

Tarell, there's so much autobiography in this story, in terms of your mother, and being rescued by a supportive drug dealer, and how you learned how to swim. What’s the biggest departure between this story and your own?

TM: Well, I didn’t become a drug dealer. [Laughs] My work in the drug trade was very limited, and I certainly was not into being anybody’s box trap, so there are departures in the story from my own life. However, Barry didn't make a huge departure from the original intent and the original script. As you asked before — this character is exploring their identity, or trying to figure out things, trying to figure out big questions, because that is exactly what I was doing with my own life. I put my life in order, and [in the story] turned left instead of right, to see what that would look like, to see what I might have become. So it was certainly personal in that way. That journey was important to me, not to teach anyone else, but to ask myself these questions that are still large in my life. Am I living the life that I was supposed to live? How am I supposed to be living it? Am I living up to this understanding of quote-unquote manhood that I come from? What does it mean to be the child of a crack addict in the world? And what am I carrying around that I’m not necessarily thinking about on the surface level? Barry dug into those in a visceral way, and I appreciated it, because I actually have more questions than answers, but now I think they are more succinct questions.

The play was structured so differently from the film. What went into the choice to reconstruct it in three acts, instead of going back and forth between parallel actions performed by all three characters?

TM: Barry came to me and said, “I understand what you're trying to do in telling this story, and I feel this will be better served in this structure. Have you seen the film Three Times?” I said no, but I read up on it, watched some of it, and talked to him more about it, and I realized he was trying to do the thing I was doing, putting the steps in an order that would make sense. And I fell in love with that idea, because it was after the same thing. It was lining up events and seeing how they make amends. Once he brought that to the table, I was sold.

Barry, you’ve said you systematically connected the different ages of the characters primarily through framing. How did you think about shooting the character in different acts?

BJ: James Laxton — the cinematographer — and I chose to shoot the film in anamorphic Cinemascope. I wanted to present a version of this character that has this great, wide-open space, these wide-open frames. Not necessarily like a Western, but I wanted the characters to always have the option of getting out of the center of the frame if they chose. This is a character who’s retreating, retracting, burrowing in, and I wanted to create claustrophobia for him without having a congested frame. And I do think the movie is meant to be immersive, so we’re always just a few feet in front of him or behind him. I think that’s a better perspective for the audience to identify with the character than being in an OTS. [Over-the-shoulder shot.] James and I had to do some work to help the audience along. And it was just about trying to find framings, and some sort of editorial juxtaposition that could suggest the feeling of the character from beat to beat.

The music in this is so remarkable. How did you use it to tell the story?

BJ: My favorite filmmaker is Claire Denis, and she uses orchestral scoring in films pretty liberally, despite being considered this very austere arthouse filmmaker. So I knew I wanted an orchestral score in this film. It’s not as a counterpoint to the setting, or the characters. It's just always how I saw the film playing out. At the same time, there were these source cues. As Chiron / Black is taking on this much more hypermasculine persona, the source cues do, too. I wanted to find a way to fluidly blend those things, but also have the orchestral score, done by Nick Britell, fuse with the character. One thing I said to Nick was, “Even though this is going to be a chamber orchestra, it still needs to be a bit bass-heavy, because the world Tarell and I grew up in is very bass-heavy.” Whenever we felt there was an outpouring or an inpouring of emotion for Chiron, there would be this subtle score to synchronize with that. Not necessarily to embellish it, but to score it.

A24

Do you feel the black community’s reaction to queerness has changed since you were growing up?

TM: I feel like with the advent of the information age, and pointing to the particular community I grew up in… I can’t speak for every community across the country, but particularly in Liberty City, the conversation is wider. Students and young people have more access to other people who are dealing with similar things. So the conversation is at the table in a more real and tangible way. It’s harder to isolate someone and call them an outlier, because you can see that's just not true. But I will also say that in the community we grew up in, there were other people who identified as queer or gay. This is just one story out of the many that were there.

So many significant things happen in the transitions between segments, as Little becomes Chiron, and Chiron becomes Black. It can be jarring. How did you navigate the question of what you could leave out of the story?

BJ: I did want to focus on Chiron — it’s his story, absolutely. And I also think the movie is intersectional, and one of the sections is about the world projecting this idea of masculinity, this idea of blackness, this idea of queerness. The world projects identity onto all of us, but particularly Chiron. I think the performance Ashton gives as Chiron shows just how Little, played by Alex, has been reshaped in the world’s image, or as a response to the aggression of the world. So each time we revisit the character, all this time has passed. There is story between those sections, but the story isn't the point. For us, the point was “How has Chiron been shaped by his past?” And I love it. I speak to people in Q&As afterward, just coming out of the auditorium, and they have all these theories about things that happened between the story sections. It’s great, because I can see them putting themselves into the piece in a way that is very active and organic. There is more story for the other characters, but the movie is already 110 minutes, and I think 110 minutes of Chiron is pretty damn intense. Paula is the place where Tarell and I connect the most, and I think we both can say there's so much story for Paula, but the movie belongs to Chiron.

The film has been critically embraced for its specifics, but also in general terms, as an antidote to a largely white film community, and to the #OscarsSoWhite narrative. How do you relate to that reaction to Moonlight?

BJ: This movie, the characters could be purple, and the structure would still be way outside the norm. The language in this movie would be way outside the norm. The way it's being framed right now is great, in a certain way. Anything that gets more eyes on the film is a plus. But it's hard for me to answer that question, because none of that stuff was ever in our minds in making this. This film began three and a half years ago. If I was to make a film today that was engineered to capitalize on those things, I probably would have made a very different film. I do think people are starved for unique voices and unique imagery, and our film is benefiting from the fortune of coming along at this time. But when you watch the film, it's clear it wasn’t created in expectation of falling into this moment. And I think people are really responding to that, because despite what's bringing them there, once they get inside the auditorium, they are still getting a surprise. They're still getting something that's unique.

If you did try to make an immediate film to capitalize on the diversity movement, what would it look like? How would it affect your approach?

BJ: If I ever worked that way, I'm pretty sure what I'd make would just be stale, and not true to who I am. Because I don't want to end up like a termite. The fact that it's been so long between these films maybe shows that the things I was working on didn't grab me like this one did. And because it grabbed me so viscerally, there was never any doubt it was gonna come out in a way that was unique and distinct. I just wanted to do right by the source material, without any expectations.

This interview was originally published on November 1st, 2016, to coincide with Moonlight’s theatrical release. It is being republished due to the film’s Best Picture win at the Academy Awards.