Director Barry Jenkins unpacks his new film ‘Moonlight’

There’s been a lot of talk around Hollywood about Moonlight. The coming-of-age film, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, was considered Oscar-worthy by critics long before its limited theatrical release on Oct. 21.

Chronicling one black boy’s childhood in Liberty City, Miami, Moonlight gives viewers a look into what life is like in an inner city where drugs and poverty are in abundance. The protagonist, who is first introduced as young “Little,” struggles with his crack-addicted mother at home and desperately avoids bullies at school who call him a “fa**ot.”

Oscar-buzzing ‘Moonlight’ gives viewers something they can hold on to

Throughout the drama, which is split in three acts like a stage play, Little (who later goes by his birth name, Chiron, and his street name, “Black,” as an adult) grapples with how to reconcile his sexuality and struggles with trusting others. Eventually, he finds solace in the paternal relationship he forms with a local drug dealer, Juan, played by “House of Cards” star Mahershala Ali. His wife, Teresa (Janelle Monaé), steps in as a motherly figure who provides home-cooked meals and a place to crash when young Chiron needs temporary sanctuary from his troubled life.

Much of the story is based on playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which Jenkins says told the story of not just McCraney’s childhood but his own. While he is not gay, Jenkins saw a lot of himself in McCraney’s character. Both he and McCraney grew up in Liberty City and had strained relationships with their mothers as children. Their collaborative project is now getting the attention of industry insiders and has earned rave reviews.

In an exclusive interview with theGrio.com, Jenkins shares why he decided to bring McCraney’s story to life on film, talks about the intersections of sexuality, socio-economics and gender constructs, and explains why he hopes the film provides visibility to people who would otherwise go unnoticed.

*Warning: Article contains film spoilers*


theGrio: What was it about Tarell Alvin’s McCraney’s play that made you want to retell the story in film?

Barry Jenkins: He did a great job of capturing the spirit and essence of this place that we’re from — which is Liberty City, Miami. I hadn’t seen anyone even attempt to tell that story before. Not even just the story of Chiron, which is one thing very specific to this film, but even just in general in telling the story of what I think is this a very beautiful, complex place in the inner city of Miami. When I read it, my first thought was, “How does he know the things he knows? — by which I mean a lot of these very similar things happened to me. My second thought was, “What can I do to make this [film] a reality?” — because sometimes when you read something, you can see it, and as a filmmaker, when you can read and see it, it’s a gift.

There are certain things in this film that I haven’t lived. I don’t have first-person experience. For me, it was important to preserve Tarell’s voice. I felt like in order to get it right, I had to have extreme fidelity to some of the things he had written. There are things from the play that I was very adamant about keeping or doing justice to and translating them in sound and image. Because when you’re making a film, it’s a different thing to get these things up and have actors bring life into them. But I wanted to really get it right.

TG: Most black gay male characters in television and film are often stereotypical. Was it important for you, as a director, to ensure the protagonist steered clear of that?

BJ: I wasn’t trying to defy anything because I think when you get into that, instead of creating something genuine, you end up creating this thing that’s meant to serve this defined element. I didn’t want to get caught up in that. I think Tarell did such a good job of translating and transferring his experience into Chiron but also creating these people who were distinct and very unique and were like the people I knew growing up. I feel like stereotypes come from outside the community, but I feel like characters come from inside the community. I wasn’t worried at all about [defying stereotypes]. It wasn’t anything I thought about. I just said let’s get Chiron right. It’s amazing because a lot of the commentary [about the film] are coming back to how unique these characters are. They’re unique because they’re actual people. If you ever met Tarell, he’s a unique cat. It’s not him, but it’s definitely based on him.

TG: You mentioned that you identified with parts of Chiron. Which parts?

BJ: In particular, the struggle he goes through with his mother was something I actually lived. When you have a mother who is going through things that are preventing her from showing you love, you start to create this version of yourself where you are not worthy of love. I think Tarell did a great job of creating a character who I can tell, through reading, was struggling with this idea that he was indeed worthy of love. I saw so much space in that to give myself over to the character. I was just hooked.

TG: Why did you decide to divide Moonlight‘s story into three parts, and why does the protagonist go by three different names in the film?

BJ: The movie is inherently intersectional to me. I think one of those sections deal with masculinity and how the world is creating this environment where we’re presented masculinity. Masculinity is projected onto us. How a man walks. How he talks. How he looks at a man or doesn’t look at a man. All this time that happens between the chapters alters who this guy is. In each section, he becomes a different person. I wanted to cast different people to play the same person, and I wanted to give him a different name. Once I made that decision, it opened up this world where I could really see how things manifested itself in the character and how it would manifest itself in scenes, and I began to have a much clearer path of working towards manifestation of that section of intersectionality.

TG: There’s a scene when “Little” and the other boys at school gather around in a circle to show off their private parts. Explain that scene in terms of his sexuality and its origin.

BJ: Tarell is the openly gay playwright, and I’m the openly straight filmmaker; however, the scene didn’t happen with Tarell, it happened with me. That was something when I read the play I just saw and believed this would have happened to him. I was like I’m going to insert this scene into Tarell’s character. A large part of the process was me being able to empathize with Little and blend his life with myself and Tarell, who are all coming together as this one person. It also shows how complex the development of sexuality is, and this idea of the way boys treat each other. And they treat each other very differently at different ages. I feel like at that age it was important. Everyone who watched the film I’m pretty sure assumed that happened to Tarell. Tarell’s like, “no I was never invited into a penis competition” (laughs). There are a bunch of straight boys who would never in a million years admit that what they were doing was exploring their sexuality.

TG: Mahershala Ali’s character, Juan, serves as Little’s savior from his home and school life, yet he is exposed as a flawed and hypocritical character because he is a drug dealer. Explain that duality.

BJ: That character is what the whole project is based off. Tarell had an actual paternal relationship with this drug dealer. This guy took him under his wing and protected him from the neighborhood bullies. When Tarell originally wrote the piece, it was about him trying to honor the memory of that guy. When I was casting, I wanted someone who was extremely charismatic. I think the beautiful thing about Mahershala Ali playing that part is that Little and Juan are not very different. Different circumstances, but not very different. I think it’s important to show that just because Juan lives in Liberty City and is a drug dealer doesn’t mean he’s only a black drug dealer. He’s a man who has a wife and probably has a family, and if he sees a little boy being picked on, he knows what it feels like to be an other as a Afro-Cuban living in an African-American neighborhood. So he might choose to protect or identify with this otherness that he sees in Little. I felt comfortable doing it because it seems like we’re defying stereotypes, but no, that’s a real person. It’s the whole reason why the story exists.

TG: Teresa, who is played by Janelle Monaé, serves as a surrogate mother to Chiron and contrast to his actual mother, Paula, who is a drug addict. At times, it feels like she didn’t need to be there. What was the significance of Teresa?

BJ: She didn’t have to be there, but in a way she had to be there. Both my experience and Tarell’s experience is that when our moms weren’t able to provide or weren’t there, there was somebody’s house you could go to. The community I feel like, despite the fact that we were all struggling and everybody had somebody in their family that was going through what our mothers were going through, there was somewhere you could go where you would not get turned away. That child has to eat, is what people would say. At the end of the day, you have to go back to your mom because we can’t take these children from their parents, but it was important for me to represent that aspect of the community. Things are tough in the ‘hood, but no child is going to starve.

TG: When Juan dies in the film, we don’t get to see Chiron grieve the loss of the closest thing he had to a father. There’s no funeral. Why did you make the decision to exclude that from the film?

BJ: In a larger context, the movie for me is about rooting the film and the character of Chiron, but I also want to take the audience on the journey with Chiron. For me, there are kids in these communities who have encountered men like Juan — these men who have become these surrogate fathers — and they might be doing right by these kids, but they’re also leading this life. Juan is a drug dealer. There are consequences for that. And I feel like at a moment’s notice, a man like Juan is going to get snatched out of that kid’s life. And I wanted the audience to feel what it’s like to have that person snatched out. There’s no time to grieve. You have to get on…your mom’s still a crackhead, and you still have to deal with these kids f***ing with you at school. I wanted to just move the audience on and have them feel the shock and disorientation of the loss — the same way I feel these kids in the neighborhood feel all the time.

TG: There’s a moment in the film where “Black” (Chiron) seems like he’s about to finally get redemption through love and have a moment of intimacy with a childhood friend — but it doesn’t go where we expect it go. You almost feel cheated as a viewer. Why did you decide to end it that way?

BJ: The time in the movie shifts once we get to the diner. We’re turning through a lot of story and covering a lot of ground in the first 85 minutes of the film, and then we get into real time — where instead of covering weeks and days, now we’re covering hours and minutes. To me, at the end of our film, the story continues but the movie ends. I felt like for the character to accelerate to anything beyond just allowing intimacy would be false for Chiron or Black’s development at that point. I think if the movie went on for another week, then we might get to a point where there’s actual release, but I felt like at that point the only thing the character was prepared for emotionally was to be held — an act of intimacy — because he doesn’t allow anyone to touch him in the film at all. Not in a very intimate and nurturing way. I wanted a really simple, crystallized moment of nurturing, of warmth, of intimacy, because I feel like that’s all the character is capable of. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to Black a week later, a month later or a year later. I just know he’s created a space to come out — I don’t mean come out of the closet, but a space to come out of his shell and allow himself to be held. For me, it was a concrete gesture that I could believe transpiring in that time.

TG: What do you want viewers to take away after watching this film?

BJ: I want people to see these characters and see them in all their full individuality. I think we walk past people like Chiron and encounter people like Juan or Paula all the time. We see them sitting on the subway, we see them in the corner, and we think “I can’t identify with the person… I have nothing in common with them,” and because we can’t identify with them, they become invisible. I would love it if people see this film, then people like our characters would no longer be invisible… that they realize these are human beings. They have things they yearn for, they hurt.