At a charged moment late in Barry Jenkins’s astonishing new movie Moonlight, childhood friend Kevin confronts Chiron, the film’s tight-lipped protagonist, and demands, “Who is you?” It’s a kind of spiritual confrontation. The two men, who shared a sexual encounter as teenagers, are now meeting a decade later. And the question—a provocation filled with tenderness—is a call to action aimed at a man still haunted by the past.
Who Chiron is—or wants to be—lies at the heart of Moonlight, which will play at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters on October 21. And the silence Chiron hides behind, first as a bullied and ostracized child and later as an emotionally alienated adult, speaks volumes. Told in three acts, Jenkins’s deeply personal movie tells the story of Chiron’s tumultuous coming-of-age against a backdrop of drugs, violence, and love in a sun-drenched Miami housing project. Loosely based on Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, the film, for which Jenkins also wrote the screenplay, draws heavily on the filmmaker’s own experiences growing up in the neighborhood with a mother struggling with addiction.
Chiron’s harrowing journey is graced with moments of unexpected kindness, wonder, and even ecstasy. Our emotional connection to Chiron, played by three terrific actors (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), deepens across time, even as the mystery of who he is and what he will become grows. We witness him as a tense and taciturn boy scooped up by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a man of intense warmth, who also happens to sell the crack that fuels the decline of Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris). We witness Chiron as a sexually confused adolescent tormented by the pressures of masculinity, and finally as an adult, transformed in body but not in spirit.
A dreamy meditation on love, desire and identity, Moonlight is boldly expressive, filled with soulful music and intoxicating images, and punctuated by moments of quiet transcendence. Poised to be one of fall’s breakouts, it couldn’t be timelier, arriving as it does in year defined by protest and violence. Without even trying, the movie refracts what’s going on, but instead of politics, it offers heartfelt poetry—which may be the season’s biggest surprise. We spoke to Jenkins at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film was rapturously received.
Brooklyn Magazine: Some of the film draws heavily on your own experiences. Can you talk about that?
Barry Jenkins: Bascially, Tarell and I grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same schools. Both of our moms went through a struggle with addiction. Growing up a year apart on the same block, I’m sure our mothers probably know each other. It was so well aligned, that I couldn’t not see myself in it. At the same time, it was a way for me to have genuine empathy for the character, and it was a very clean and direct way into Tarell’s experience.
I hadn’t made a film in eight years. When I read Tarell’s play, it felt like he’d created a memory of my memory. As a visual storyteller, it’s a really beautiful experience to have. Within the dialogue, I could see all these images. Despite the fact that we’re telling a heavy story with some very dark things, my memory of growing up there—and Tarell would say the same thing—they happen in a very beautiful place.
One of the things that jumps forward is the tactility and sensuality of the world you evoke. I think some of Claire Denis’s films do that.
She’s my favorite filmmaker. I would say, if there’s any film that’s a one-to-one influence on this film, it would be Beau Travail for sure. It’s funny you mention tactile. I think of Claire as a “nuts and bolts” filmmaker. There are no crazy transitions in her work. They are very clear-eyed, concrete images. And yet, she arrives at this level of metaphor that other filmmakers just aren’t capable of. Her films are very human examples of sensuality. I think Miami has a lot of that feeling, [which] was something the cinematographer and I wanted to communicate. Also, I didn’t want to make a movie about sexuality and gay, black men and not have it be sensual. That would have been antithetical to the point of the film.
The film confronts a subject that sometimes still feels taboo, which is black male homosexuality.
It wasn’t something that I intellectually thought of while making the film. I try to just have tunnel vision and look at what’s in front of me and build the scene. So it wasn’t a point, and yet as we’re working and putting some of these scenes together, you could feel it on the set that we were doing something that filmmakers don’t often do. There was an electricity in the air about what we were doing on certain occasions. And yet, it was like chopping wood: we approached every scene the same way, whether it was overtly sensual or mundane. One of my favorite shots in the film is when [Chiron] goes back to Kevin’s apartment [in the third story]. There’s a joke when Kevin says, “I’ll make you some green tea” and Chiron says, “I don’t drink that shit.” Then, Kevin puts the pot on the stove. There’s a kindness and a lovingness there. It’s a very simple act but we filmed it the same way we filmed anything else.
In a world where we talk about nurture versus nature, I come down hard on the side of nurture. In this film, we’re sort of showing how a certain kind of nurture, or lack of nurturing, leads Chiron to start to fortify himself. He starts to deny and bury this part of his true identity.
Chiron is so locked up in himself, he often won’t speak for himself. Was a character like this a challenge as a writer-director?
I knew that the film was going to have a lot of space. That’s why in building this story, rather than telling it over the course of 50 years, we just take these three very pivotal moments, and we’ll tell them at a very fine detail, like with a magnifying glass. That way we can create the space to have him react slowly to things. He’s thinking about experiences, ingesting them, and we’re going to film that process. That was always going to be the approach, so the silence we’re speaking of is, in a way, to empower a coming-of-age story. You have to see the character evolve in the present tense.
The way we cast [the three Chirons] is I wanted to feel in their essence. I wanted to have the audience see in their eyes that they were all connected.
What music do we hear over the opening credits? It sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it.
It’s a track by Boris Gardiner called “Every Nigger Is a Star” written in 1973 for a Blaxploitation film. I first heard it sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, but then I did some research. It was a song basically about celebrating black pride. If it had been made in 1993, it would have been “Every Nigga Is a Star.” In the opening of the film, I wanted to state outright that this film is of a place and we’re not going to code-switch. We’re going to be dealing with these characters that we don’t see very often and this place that we drive past with our doors locked, and yet there are beautiful people here and this is a worthwhile story. It was like planting a flag: this is what this is.
You show a huge amount of beauty and a huge amount of pain. This leads into my question about the cinematography. You use widescreen so intimately. There’s sort of two modes, the swirling camera movements and then very tight on people.
My memory of Miami is that it’s a very wide place. We think of it as very flat, but I didn’t want to frame things like a Western, with things on the extreme left or right. I think of Miami as lush. To me, it was all about this lush, green grass on the floor of the frame, and big open sky on the top of the frame. We have these characters living in this lush, open world and yet there’s some element of Chiron that’s choosing to shrink within himself, despite the wide horizon. We wanted to communicate that visually by having a very wide frame that still felt claustrophobic.
What was the hardest thing about this project?
On a personal level, the hardest part was directing Naomie Harris as the character Paula because she’s a composite of my mom and Tarell mom and she’s performing things that I’ve not had to deal with for the last ten, fifteen years of my life. It was very tough but we did it, in a very professional way that still was emotional. At some point, when you start to work on something, it takes on a mind of its own. Instead of me wheeling this film, this film wheeled me, you know? And there’s no way I could have written these characters, written this story, without Tarell’s source material. Once it took hold of me, it wasn’t a thought thing. It was always emotional and it came from a place of passion.