The movie Moonlight has been garnering a steady stream of praise since its wide release this fall. The beautifully shot film follows a young black man through three stages of his life as he comes to grips with his identity and struggles to not just find, but accept himself. It's a raw and rare look at intersecting worlds that are too often marginalized in pop culture and it's having a visceral impact on audiences worldwide. TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey felt that emotional pull the first time he screened the film and programmed it as part of 2016's Toronto International Film Festival. He's brought the movie back to the TIFF Lightbox and it's been the most successful opening in the theatre's history. I sat down with Bailey in Toronto to talk about why it matters to see these stories on the big screen, and what Moonlight could mean for diversity in Hollywood.
VICE: How did you feel the first time time you watched Moonlight?
Cameron Bailey: I watched Moonlightin the middle of the summer leading up to the Toronto Film Festival in September. And we'd already been seeing hundreds of movies over the months leading up to that. And, you know you see bad movies, you see good movies, you see a lot in between, but I hadn't had a reaction like that all year, really. And it was something that started in the pit of my stomach. And at first it was actually tension. It was, you know, the first few scenes, I thought were so great, so well-balanced, so well directed and written and calibrated and I was just afraid that it was gonna ruin it somehow you know. I thought it certainly can't sustain this for the whole film but it did. And by the end of it, I was feeling the emotion that the film really conveys, you know, when the the lovers finally come together and the longing. I was really with the characters. I so admire the art of the film. I was kind of listening to the music choices, the silences in the film, the sound design as well as watching the images in the framing and the lighting and the color palette and all those things really came together. But ultimately it was kind of a visceral response in my stomach and I loved it.
Are you surprised at all by the reaction that that people have had? It's sort of, you know, on a runaway train of success.
I'm gratified. I'm very happy that it's had the response it has. I think Moonlight is a terrific film, but it's a small film. It was made on a fairly low budget. It came in unheralded in many ways. There are many people in the independent film world who knew Barry Jenkins and his work. He'd made a wonderful film called Medicine for Melancholy, but that was eight years ago. And apart from some short films and some commercials, he hadn't really done anything since then. So I think for a lot of people, he was still a new voice. We'd shown Medicine for Melancholy after it played at South by Southwest, so we were aware of his work. We were waiting for that work for a long time but I think a lot of audiences discovered this filmmaker with this film. And it's rare that you find a brand new filmmaker, brand new voice, who is that accomplished you know, in what is really only his second feature film. So I was really happy to see how people embraced it. There was a lot of debate early on about—it's about a young black man, a young black gay man. It's about sexuality, it's about someone who's poor. It's made on a low budget. It doesn't have the things that, you know, audiences usually flock to. I wasn't so worried about that because I found the emotional impact was so strong and I thought that's why people go to movies. That's what we want from cinema, right? We want that emotional impact and we want great art and Moonlight has both of those things. So I thought if people can find the movie they'll fall in love with it. They just need to find it.
What would it have meant for you, for a young Cameron, to have seen a story like this growing up?
You know, I think I found the things that I needed to find. And I think a lot of people who are consumers and spectators of pop culture from a kind of a marginalized position, racialized position in my case, you find what you need ultimately. And so, you know, when I was growing up, it was the films of Spike Lee, it was the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, it was Frantz Fanon, it was the Autobiography of Malcolm X. There are a lot of these filmmakers who weren't— their work was not turning up on commercial movie screens. And the books that I was finding were not on my course curricula you know, in university, but I found a way. So I think that that's what will happen to Moonlight now. Though the good news is that it's easier to find films like Moonlight. You don't have to really search too hard. We're showing it here at the Lightbox, it's in commercial screens all across North America right now. So that's the good news. I think if this specific film had been there when I was younger, I would have responded not just to the story that it's telling and how it foregrounds these characters who look like me, you know. Their story is very different to mine, but at least there's that kind of sense of recognition from seeing people who look like you up on screen, which you often don't get from Hollywood movies. But beyond that I think what I would have seen was the art. And I discovered that cinema could do more than just entertain. When I was at university and I first began watching the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism and Brazilian Cinema Novo and a lot of other films from all over the world. Asian cinema from China and Japan and Taiwan, and I fell in love with those films and those filmmakers but I didn't have a filmmaker like Barry Jenkins that I could revere the way that I did Wong Kar Wai for instance.
As a programmer, do you feel a responsibility to push movies like Moonlight?
You know I'm in a very fortunate position here at TIFF. I get to help bring movies like Moonlight to audiences for the first time. I knew in my gut [audiences] would react to this film positively because they just—they're thirsty for it. They don't get to see these kinds of images on the big screen very often. I knew that we had to find ways to reach those people. And I think especially young people, especially young black teens, young LGBTQ teens, they will probably want to see this movie. And it might be more meaningful for them than it is for anyone else because it also tells a little bit of what may be their own stories and that sense of longing and of trying to find your identity that's expressed so powerfully in the film. When you're that age, you need to see see that other people are going through that as well and it's not just you. So we did our best to try to reach those audiences. And those are maybe not our everyday audiences here at the Light Box, but it became especially important. So if there was a responsibility, it was that.
The film is incredible and much of its success is owed to that. But the timing also feels really right. It feels like we're—for better and for worse—we're at kind of a tipping point in terms of having the hard conversations that we've needed to have for a long time as a society.
I think the ground has shifted and I'm not sure if it is just a tremor or if it's an earthquake that's coming. But I think the way that culture was presented and constructed in the past—popular culture, popular entertainment, I'm talking about movies and pop music, that kind of thing—that's shifted, that's changed. We've seen that happen over the last 20 years. There is no single kind of entertainment anymore that anyone can assume will appeal and speak to everyone. Audiences and individuals have decided that they actually want to find their own path right? And so you might get a kid growing up in the, you know, middle of Canada and Saskatchewan or someplace like that, who is growing up on a farm but decides that she likes trap music or is into anime from Japan and that somehow, something about it speaks to her. And so the culture—those of us who are involved in presenting culture—have to try to figure that out. But as that's happening, there's a resistance right? There's a resistance that says, "no we like things the way they used to be when there was just one form of culture," and it was supposed to speak to everyone and those who didn't find it spoke to them, they just kept quiet. But people aren't keeping quiet anymore. They're finding the culture that speaks to them. They're seeking more, they're asking for more.
And you've seen that on a very large macro level with what's happened with the Marvel movies. They were all presented in a certain way at the beginning and people are beginning to say "Oh, what about Black Panther? You haven't done Black Panther." "Oh, why don't you do Ms. Marvel?" You know? "Why won't you actually, you know, let a woman direct a Marvel movie?" Because, I think you know, an audience member may say "I actually think that will make a difference," you know.
I think we all want to hope it's a tipping point and you know, gone are the days of a completely white Oscar stage. But do you think we've got momentum and that momentum can sustain?
I don't really believe in it always being an upward path or forward direction in terms of cultural progress. I think things happen in waves and cycles. You can use all kinds of metaphors but there isn't just one direction. So you know, I remember there've been many cycles of this kind of push for cultural diversity in pop culture in the past. I lived through one in the late eighties and early nineties when we first saw, you know, a wave of a black filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton and there is a whole Black Arts Movement in hip-hop, Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers, many others. And then that disappeared for the most part and those works were sort of pushed back to the margins and now we're seeing another wave. So I think this is probably going to be more cyclical than it is a kind of steady change.
It seems like Moonlight is really affecting people emotionally, audiences are left in tears—when you did the first Q&A with the cast at TIFF, they teared up. Why do you think it's resonating in that way?
You know I think that the word that really stays with me the most is "thirst." And I think it's been so powerful to see people who have been thirsty for a long time and sometimes didn't even know how thirsty they were. They didn't know fully what they were missing until they experienced Moonlight because I think for some people, this was the first time they'd seen this story on screen. The first time they'd seen two black men be tender with one another. We see men and women, we certainly see white people, we sometimes see two white men or even two white women, but we don't see much beyond that. And that feeling of just relief, it's so powerful. It's like there's been pent up emotion inside you and you see something that releases it and suddenly you just—you're awash with all kinds of feelings that you may not even have expected or know how to describe or articulate but they're there. And I've seen that in screenings of Moonlight here at the Lightbox over and over again and it comes out in the in the Q&A sessions that we do with the film. And I think people need that opportunity not just to feel that emotion but to talk about it as well.
Follow Amil Niazi on Twitter.