“We all have origin stories,” actor and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney tells me over the phone. Moonlight is scheduled for worldwide release the following day, and McCraney is discussing the mythology of selfhood. “We tell ourselves, 'This is how I came to be; this is how my family came to be,’” he says. “And they feel real, but there’s a kind of glow around them. They’re in the haze of memory.”
With the distance afforded by time, any ancestral narrative can feel mythological. But familial histories are like myths, riddled with lessons and legends. Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins’ second film, is based on McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and for all its realism, features its own kind of poetry. Told in three acts, it tells the tender story of Chiron, a Liberty City boy who progresses from childhood to adulthood almost silently, the depth of his heart revealing itself, constantly and unmistakably, on his face.
Chiron is played by three actors: as a child by Alex Hibbert, as a stoic adolescent by Ashton Sanders, as a man by Trevante Rhodes. Each of them takes us to the brink of our own emotional landscapes, and leaves us to wander them alone. To reference A.O. Scott’s review of the film, Moonlight is about growing up poor, gay, and black, but it’s also about vulnerability, intimacy, the kind of inner truths that sit unwavering in the bones. We’re not necessarily meant to see ourselves in Chiron—paltry universalism can diminish a narrative’s specificity—but he becomes inextricably woven into the human condition. We feel close.
Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali. Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24
A Miami native and recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, McCraney’s story is largely biographical. “I wrote the first draft in the summer of 2003,” he says. “My mother had just passed away from AIDS-related complications, and I was trying to write a poetic narrative about my time as a child in Miami. I felt very guilty for not being there when my mother passed away [...] and for the estrangement we kind of had, particularly because of her drug addiction. I tried to pen a narrative that looked at the relationships I had with people in my life. That included looking at what would happen if the main character tried to become like the drug dealer who raised him. What cycles do we continue to perpetuate? How do we try to become our parents?”
Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) suffers from addiction, a state in which she becomes obdurate. Her dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), incidentally takes Chiron under his soft wing, teaching him to swim and sharing with him an unflappable love and kind honesty. Chiron’s name is no coincidence. Deemed the Wounded Healer by Carl Jung, Chiron the centaur is quite unlike his lusty brethren. The calm hero trains Hercules and, upon receiving a fatal wound that will never heal due to his inability to die, sacrifices his immortality, saving someone else.
Naomie Harris. Courtesy of A24
“There are parts of [Chiron] that will never heal,” explains McCraney. “His job is to find ways to heal others. I think it’s important, in understanding what we think of masculinity—especially in the black community—to consider that when we think of who’s been hurt, we often remember how they callous over, not how they have ability to be generous. As much as I don’t like large groups of people, there’s always something in me that wants to help. A lot of the time, I often feel broken inside, but if I can help as many people as possible, then my purpose is served.”
The nature of the script meant during filming, McCraney stepped aside: “Even after Barry gave it space and a platform, the screenplay is full of memories that are hard to watch. I wanted to make sure the story got told without my emotional reaction, which would’ve been inevitable. I would not have been able to contain myself.” At once strikingly beautiful and hopelessly challenging, Miami's truths exemplify humanity in the fabric of its very own landscape. “I’ve brought people here from London, and they [...] were trying to figure out how it could be filled with poor people if it was this pretty,” McCraney laughs. “This has always been part of why I tell stories. Just because we live in a naturally beautiful place doesn’t mean we aren’t denied access to basic things. That’s true in other neighborhoods in Miami, too—in Hialeah, in Little Havana. Those stories are important—not just for me, but for the rest of the community.”
As in life, magic is often found in what’s blisteringly accurate. Moonlight’s trajectory, hypnagogic it may be, is a story that should’ve been told long ago, though there’s no telling if it would’ve felt this much like floating in the intensity of the sea. “The piece feels lyrical,” McCraney adds, “because a lot of it comes from dreamlike states, the chaos that is memory, before it leads to the present tense.”
Moonlight is now playing in theaters nationwide. Find more information on the film here.