'Moonlight' Director Barry Jenkins on Bringing 'Art House to the Hood'

We spoke to the filmmaker about his game-changing film about what it's like to be young, gay, and black in Miami.

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Oct 20 2016, 9:05pm

Photo courtesy of A24

Once in a while there comes a film that inspires so much praise, so much full-throated acclaim that you wonder whether it's all too good to be true. Barry Jenkins's latest, Moonlighta Miami-set triptych about the life of a young, gay African American male—has been showered with adulation since its September world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival (where Jenkins has worked for many years as a programmer). It's been hailed as a masterful slice of storytelling, and a game-changer in the cinematic representation of black American masculinity. "[N]o one in the 90s wanted to finance films about gay black men," wrote the New Yorker's esteemed theatre critic Hilton Als recently. "Twenty years later, I still don't know how Jenkins got this flick made. But he did. And it changes everything."

High praise indeed. Yet once in a while, the hype is entirely justified. It's taken Jenkins eight years—pretty much the entire duration of Barack Obama's presidential tenure—to follow up his lovely debut, the witty romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy, and the wait has been worth it. Like his first film, Moonlight is a patient, restrained, and minutely detailed work that finds beauty and pain alike in unexpected places and connections.

Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by playwright/actor Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film begins in 1980s inner city Miami, where the African American community is riven by drugs and poverty. Main character Chiron is at first seen as a shy young boy. A sudden ellipsis, and he is a teen, struggling against an aggressive, hyper-masculine school culture. Finally, Chiron emerges as a withdrawn, enigmatic grown man searching for human connection.

In each segment, Chiron struggles with his sexual identity while various figures drift in and out of his life: an unexpected father figure in dope dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali); his disturbed, drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris); his flirtatious pal Kevin (brilliantly played as an adult by André Holland); and an alternative maternal figure, luminously manifested by singer Janelle Monáe in her first major film appearance. All three actors playing Chiron— Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes—are hitherto unknown quantities who give electric, potentially star-making performances. Each plays a vital role in making Moonlight feel so fresh.

With yet more praise ringing in Jenkins's ears, I recently caught up with him in London, where the film was receiving its European premiere at the London Film Festival.

VICE: Can you tell me about falling in love with McCraney's play in the first place?
Barry Jenkins: There were certain things in Tarell's life that completely overlapped with mine; most of those things are performed by Naomie Harris in the movie. So when I read it, the feeling I had was: These are things I know but I don't talk about very often—it's not that I've forgotten or willfully ignored them, they just don't come up. So to be more or less hit in the face with them in Tarell's play, it grabbed me. My intellectual thought process was that if I could read this, meet these characters, and have such a visceral, warm reaction to them, and then turn my back on this project, it would be a really cowardly reaction.

It's a bold move to take on a project with such sensitive subject matter for your second feature.
I started working on this about three and a half years ago. Within the first year of that period, I had the script. Once we had that, I have to say I had more doubt than anyone else: Can I make this film as my second film and still have a career? I even had friends say, "The script is good but are you sure you want to do this right now?" Sometimes you just have to be bold—I was thinking of this Goethe quote: "Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

Once the script was done, we had two offers to finance the film within six months. Those opportunities didn't work out, but [Brad Pitt's company] Plan B came in, followed by A24. They don't even finance films, but they created a space within their company just to allow themselves to work on this film.

A24's leap of faith must have been a huge confidence boost.
Yes, and that leap didn't come with strings attached. They didn't say yes, we'll make this film but it's got to be a little bit less gay, or it can't be a triptych, or you have to have a star play all three parts.

Or we'll have Chiron be a white woman.
Exactly! Because the way to up the international value would be to put Julia Roberts or Natalie Portman in it as Chiron. Which would be kind of an awesome SNL skit, but we'll see.

Photo courtesy of A24

It's fair to say there's a major shortfall in the representation of queer African American life in the media, let alone mainstream cinema. During the film, I was thinking of things like Tongues Untied by the late Marlon Riggs, but he was working in nonfiction. Your film tackles Chiron's sexuality in an understated way. Can you talk about your approach there?
I didn't want to make sexuality the overt theme of the film because there's so much other shit that Chiron's dealing with, including his relationship with his mother, and all the ideas we have in America about masculinity and what is acceptable as presented masculinity. It was never my, nor Tarell's, approach to have this really raging loud voice, [say,] "This is a movie about something that is really important to a lot of people!"

That said, it was hard to work on this film and not be aware that there was a void that it could potentially help address. It's an absolute fucking shame that I've never seen a film where one black man holds another black man's hand, or one black man cooks for another black man, you know? We don't see that often enough.

"It's an absolute fucking shame that I've never seen a film where one black man holds another black man's hand, or one black man cooks for another black man, you know?"

There was a Vanity Fair cover last year of Michael B. Jordan resting his hand on Ryan Coogler's head. It's a beautiful image, but I saw homophobic nonsense flying around on blogs and on Facebook, about "the media conspiracy to ' feminize' black men."
It's funny—I'm pretty sure we were in pre-production when that happened. We all sat up and started to pay attention. Because we realized, "Oh OK, if they're uncomfortable with this, then we 're going to make them un-fucking-comfortable." When we released our trailer, I got angry messages on Twitter basically saying the same thing. You know, "Who the fuck are you? Why are you trying to rob us of our manhood?" And I was like, "This isn't about you if it's not your story."

When I first saw the photo, it didn't even occur to me because I know those guys, I know how close they are: Talk about a positive, productive friendship between two black men. Like, just a gorgeous friendship. And to have the honesty and vulnerability inherent in that friendship—those guys are smart, they know these images go all around the world. I was very fucking excited to see the photo, and then when it turned, it turned very quickly. It was hurtful, you know?

Can you talk more about this performance of masculinity?
Everything in the world is teaching you that this personality, this identity that's forced onto these men, is not only acceptable, but dominant. And even stronger than that: It's literally a form of protection. It's such a problem because it's so insidious. I'm very big on nature versus nurture, and sometimes we just believe it's in these young black men 's nature to be hyper masculine, un-feeling, un-vulnerable. That's simply not the case.

You mention that idea of self-protection. It struck me that so many of the big films of the Obama era with an African American focus are related to trauma: Lincoln, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, Selma, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight. And now Ava DuVernay's 13th is literally a chronicle of black American suffering that brings us up to date with all the (filmed) police brutality happening. It's not to say that there isn't trauma in your film, but you unpick it with a tenderness that's disarming. Was that question of representing trauma on your mind?
Aside from 13th, every film you named is set in the past. I believe in this psychic trauma that's passed through our genes through generations, so I think it makes sense to want to go back and work it out; a lot of it is still carried in us today. By the same token, I think I'm making a contemporary film about contemporary characters in which the currency is not this overbearing trauma, but rather a very earned expression of genuine tenderness. We admit that this trauma exists deep within us, but we're not going to wallow in it. We are going to push past whatever psychic scars that trauma has inflicted.

The most transcendent scene for me is the swimming scene [when Juan teaches young Chiron how to float], which to me felt like a baptism. Also, the image of two black men in the Atlantic Ocean, when you can't see land for miles, as a black American, conjures a very particular vision. I do believe, however, that the trauma we're exploring in this is rooted in the systemic application of what is acceptable black masculinity. The kind of black man you have to be to survive in a society where Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin can happen.

I have to ask about the music. You kick off with a sample of Boris Gardiner's "Every Nigger Is a Star," which is sampled by Kendrick Lamar on "Wesley's Theory." What a way to start!
I'd never heard of Gardiner before Kendrick's album. I looked into it and realized it was an album unto itself, for an ultra-obscure Blaxploitation film that IMDB doesn't even know about. This album and movie were made as a piece of propaganda, meant to display how amazing black people are. I wanted to stamp on our film that this is going to be a very aggressive, radicalized depiction of my version of a black experience where I grew up. It's not gonna code-switch, we're not going to make concessions. Instead of bringing the hood to the art house, it's bringing art house to the hood. Starting with Boris Gardiner is planting the flag.


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And the music is amazing throughout.
My filmmaking voice has been developed watching a lot of cinema, and yet my personal voice is rooted in the place I grew up: the place depicted in Moonlight. So I knew I wanted an orchestral score because a lot of the cinema I love—like the films of Claire Denis, scored by Tindersticks—incorporates a tender orchestral score. I didn't want it to be something that, when playing, would mix with the contemporary music; I knew when we got to the third story, which is set today, we'd have a lot of "chopped and screwed" hip-hop. There are music cues that appear from the first story to the second story, and as we complete the second story and move into the third, the composer Nicholas Britell began chopping and screwing the orchestral score: It was fucking amazing. We had session players from the New York Philharmonic applying these Houston, Texas, hip-hop principles to their cellos, their violins. We're getting a deep heavy bass rumble from these chamber instruments.

When you walk through the hood and a car goes by, you feel this boom boom boom boom, all this bass. In our film, the heaviest bass you feel is not from the trunk of any character's car, it's from a session player from the New York Philharmonic. There are some ancient civilizations that have a theory that the universe was created from speech, like it was spoken into existence. And today, when we talk about dating the universe, we do it from what? Radio waves. It's all vibrations, so I like to think that the reason why, in my community, people play this bass is to communicate. So I wanted to have a score that you could also feel in the same way. And to do that, we took the orchestra to the hood.

My final question. Will you please make a Prince biopic starring André Holland?
[Jenkins looks over to the hotel bar where André Holland is sitting] Hey 'Dre! C'mere. You gotta ask him. You can't ask me. [André strolls over ]

André, can he please make a Prince biopic with you in it?
André Holland: That is hilarious.
Jenkins: Sí, se puede. Yes, we can!
Holland: If you ready, I'm ready. Let's shake on it.

Barry Jenkins and André Holland at the London Film Festival. Photo by Ashley Clark

Follow Ashley Clark on Twitter.

Moonlight will be released in theaters on Friday, October 21.

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