Enlightened: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ tracks a gay black man’s arduous journey

Movies Features

The Telluride Film Festival doesn’t have official premieres with glitz and glamour. So call the laid-back, inaugural screening of Moonlight, writer-director Barry Jenkins’ quietly moving, delicately crafted sophomore feature at this year’s edition “a revelation” instead. Soon after Moonlight had its first screening in front of a group of avid cinephiles and industry insiders in the Rockies (before it went on to haunt Toronto and New York Film Festival audiences later on), it gently became the must-see discovery of the festival overnight, with a gay, black Florida man’s coming-of-age tale and emotional journey told in three chapters, covering three separate segments of his life.

For Jenkins, who made his directorial debut with the dreamy, unhurried San Francisco-set Medicine for Melancholy eight years ago, Telluride was not only the perfect place to introduce his second film, but is also a home of sorts. He’s been a staple figure of the festival for over a decade and has worn various hats during that time, from volunteer to programmer. “It was like an out-of-body experience,” he says about attending the festival as a filmmaker. Joining me on a video chat via Skype from Los Angeles, he notes, “I first went there in 2002, so it's been 14 years that I've been watching, introducing and programming other people's movies. There was a point where I realized you have all these dreams and I was living in the middle of one of mine.”

And it was in fact his consistent presence in Telluride that helped make Moonlight, which he adapted from Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a reality, when Plan B Entertainment came onboard. Jenkins, who moderated the Telluride Q&A for 12 Years A Slave in 2013 (which Plan B unveiled there and took all the way to the Oscars), first met Plan B producers a few years before that. “But nothing came of it and I completely lost contact,” he recalls.

Jenkins was in for a surprise that year. Because of the way Telluride works, the slate was kept secret until the last minute and he had no idea Plan B was going to be there. “I only knew maybe twelve hours before that I was going to present that film. I had just come back from Europe writing the first draft of Moonlight. When you meet people after so long they go, ‘Oh, what are you up to?’ I was able to say, ‘I just came back from adapting this play by Tarell McCraney.’ They knew exactly who that was. We just kept talking for months while I worked on the script. Then my other producer, Adele Romanski, just worked it out [with them]. Then Plan B very rapidly brought A24 into the fold. It’s a very serendipitous thing.”

The evocative, viscerally rousing Moonlight follows Chiron, first as a kid (played by Alex R. Hibbert), then as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and finally as a grown, seemingly toughened-up man (Trevante Rhodes), with consistent, disarming empathy and affection. Chiron fights off bullies daily, endures the pressing trauma of living with his increasingly abusive drug-addict mom, Paula (a terrific Naomie Harris), and finds refuge in the home of surrogate parents Teresa (Janelle Monáe) and Juan (Mahershala Ali)—the latter of whom sees Chiron’s desperate need of a shelter and happens to be the very dealer who supplies his mother with drugs. “The whole project is rooted in that [drug dealer] character,” Jenkins explains. “Tarell had an actual real-life paternal relationship with a drug dealer. People think it is farfetched. [But in fact,] the whole play exists because that happened.”

In the midst of all that, Chiron also gradually discovers his sexual identity and silently grapples with turbulent emotions. In one of the film’s most defining scenes, a reluctant, vulnerable young Chiron sits at the kitchen table with Juan and Teresa, and asks them, “What’s a faggot?”—to which Juan responds with thoughtful eloquence. “It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves.” At first, it’s not the response one might expect from a drug dealer living in a tough neighborhood, but Jenkins’ smart script swiftly pulls the rug from under the viewer frequently, breaking down stereotype after stereotype.

“It was important to find someone who could play that character in a way that when you get to that scene, there is, depending on what you bring to the movie, a self-implication. ‘Why wouldn't I expect him to give such an answer? I just saw him teach this boy how to swim,’” Jenkins reflects. “Nobody's completely black-and-white, everything's gray. Mahershala's performance is so well-rounded, so he's not [just] the drug dealer with a heart of gold. He could be a very ugly, mean guy, and yet he wants Chiron to have the space to become himself in a comfortable way. I was trying to craft that scene where it would feel earned, and not preachy.”

While Jenkins modestly avoids taking full credit for the way Moonlight challenges stereotypes and notions of masculinity, he still realizes his film does something radical, not often seen in cinema. “People like this exist, but they don't reach the screen very often. The point was to get it right, and do due diligence to these people. To me and Tarell, they were real people that reminded us of folks we grew up with.”

It wasn’t only Tarell McCraney who had a profound personal connection to Chiron’s story. Jenkins saw a clear reflection of himself in it too. Primarily, it was Chiron’s relationship to his mom that struck a chord with Jenkins. “If you strip away the [sexual-identity aspect], that was literally my childhood,” the director says, explaining that he too grew up very poor in that neighborhood, with a mother caught in a raging drug addiction. “The one difference between myself and the Chiron character is, between the first and second story, Chiron continues to live with his mom through her addiction, which is what happened to Tarell. My mom was so strung out that I could not live with her. I lived with a family friend who [I had] no blood relationship [with]…a woman who I refer to as either my aunt or my grandma. That's what the Teresa role takes on,” explains Jenkins, emphasizing the real-life extensions of the sense of community and communal responsibility Moonlight brilliantly puts on display.

“There were a lot of young people who were left to fend for themselves, and people of no blood relationship in the neighborhood would take those kids in. If you needed something to eat, you knew which house to go to,” he continues, indicating that there is a reason why someone cooks for Chiron in every single chapter of the story. “It is [an organic] reflection, because that was my experience growing up.”

It was of course a vast challenge to cast three different Chirons at different ages that could evoke a continuous, shared sense of resilience and vulnerability through the same character. As described by Jenkins, the quietness of Chiron comes from a willful decision to not participate. By not speaking, Chiron assumes the world can’t respond back to him in an aggressive manner. “I felt like if we had actors who weren't openly vulnerable in their physical posture, but mostly in their eyes and face, [the yearning] and withdrawal from that yearning would [come across] effectively.”

When he recently saw them all together in Toronto, Jenkins was reminded of how different the three actors are from one another in real life. He gives the majority of the credit to his casting director, who instantly understood what he was trying to achieve and believed they could find the right boys and men. They moved forward with casting when Jenkins knew in his gut he had found the right actors. “It was just a feeling, you know? It was just a feeling. Ashton was the first that we cast, Trevante was the second, and then ‘Little’ [Hibbert] was the last. That was the one that we had to make sure. He's never acted before, so he's not even a child actor, he's a child.”

Jenkins is especially proud of the final chapter of the film, which, in his words, “slows down the story of the character considerably” when he visits a brief flame he never got over from his high-school years. “After all the work we've been doing, it was time to watch this guy make choices and evolve. We get into real time, and observe a person and see if they will allow themselves that vulnerability to get through that resilience, which to me is brought on by all the shit that's swirling around this guy in the world.”

The swirling world Jenkins refers to is captured by his cinematographer, James Laxton (also the DP of Medicine for Melancholy), in long takes and circling camera moves that flawlessly echo the rhythms and inner workings of Chiron’s surroundings. In the film’s single-take opening sequence where we follow Juan at work, the circling effect is at once dizzying and sobering. “We wanted to drop the audience into the world in a way that showed how fluidly so many things are happening. This transaction [in the opening scene] is going on out in the open and then kids are playing right by it. We wanted to start the film with this idea of fate. If those kids had been a second later, he never would have noticed that they were chasing Chiron.”

Discussing another distinct visual choice he and Laxton employ—focusing on characters’ faces directly, sensually and almost confrontationally—“I wanted moments where the audience had to inhabit the body of the characters,” Jenkins explains. He had no interest in what he calls “miserablism” or “exploitation of poverty” narratives. Instead, he searched for “potent moments of transference,” where something in the character is visibly shifting. “We found out the way to do that was to literally put the audience into the bodies of the characters at very [select] moments. In the first story, it's after Paula has confronted Juan. Then in story two, it's when Chiron comes home from Teresa's house. Then in the third story, it's when he has to find Kevin [his old flame]. Those were moments when it was okay to jar the audience.”

While completely aware of the awards buzz Moonlight has been generating since Telluride, on the heels of another “Oscars So White” controversy the second year in a row, Jenkins remains surprised, as he doesn’t feel his film is engineered to inspire that kind of conversation. To him, it’s a shock and a blessing in equal measure. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Jenkins simply hopes people will step out of their comfort zones and find empathy for those who aren’t on their immediate radar. “The more people see Moonlight, the more someone who hasn't seen some of the things we tackle [will] walk past people like our characters and won’t [assume] they understand everything about that person's life. Maybe because of this talk, someone like that will be more willing to see the film.”

Asked whether he feels anxious or even unintentionally pressured by the weighty role his film is expected to play in response to the “Oscars So White” talk, Jenkins says he just wants the best for the film. “I don't feel like there's a load on my shoulders,” he responds. “This movie was already in the can by the time ‘Oscars So White’ happened. I feel like there are a lot of films right now that are being caught up in that conversation, and all predate the past 12 months. To frame them as a reflection or a response to ‘Oscars So White’ is a bit disingenuous.”

Jenkins sees positive developments in the industry during the eight-year stretch between his two films. “I have friends who've been through [diversity initiatives] and they've been very worthwhile. The biggest thing I've seen over the last few years is just the proliferation, the continued employment of filmmakers who are ‘other’: people of color, women, people of different sexualities that are doing great work,” he asserts. “What Ava [DuVernay] did with ‘Queen Sugar’ just did not happen eight years ago. A lot of that is filmmaker-driven. That's why we talk of Hidden Figures, Fences and Moonlight and The Birth of a Nation. I'll tell you, 2019 is when we would theoretically see whatever bump there may be within the industry, within the Academy, [as a response to] ‘Oscars So White.’”

Jenkins is already thinking of his next project and continuing to do his part in shaking up the industry as an artist. “Adele Romanski, Plan B and I are working on [adapting] Colson Whitehead's new book The Underground Railroad [as a limited series]. There’s also a script I wrote at the same time that I wrote Moonlight, a book adaptation that I'm finishing up. I want to get Moonlight to as many people as possible, but then I'm trying to add another 40 percent of myself so I can work at 140 percent capacity. I'll sleep when I'm dead.”