When Barry Jenkins presented a PowerPoint to a group of producers outlining his vision for Moonlight (2016), the final slide said the following: “Moonlight is a story that hasn’t been told. Whether placed as queer black cinema or urban male cinema, the lack of coming-of-age films featuring people like Chiron and set in places like inner-city Miami is pronounced and unfortunate . . . People like our character exist.” Though the presentation failed to convince them to finance the project, Jenkins would go on to realize his film, working with the small independent company A24, along with Plan B Entertainment, to produce this year’s Best Picture at the Golden Globes.
Moonlight follows Chiron, a closeted black boy living in the Miami projects, whose mother is struggling with a heroin addiction. Frequently bullied, he finds a protective figure in a local drug dealer named Juan and develops an intimate relationship with his more self-assured friend, Kevin. We follow him across three stages of his life as he reconciles with his mother, confronts his sexual feelings for Kevin, and copes with his identity as a gay black man in a neighborhood ruled by machismo. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the story also hit close to home for Jenkins, who grew up in the Miami projects at the height of the crack epidemic with a heroin-addicted mother. Moonlight was a return to the stark truths that he knew intimately; he even filmed parts of the movie on the street where he lived.
Now this year’s forecasted Oscar winner, Jenkins confided that he almost never envisioned coming this far. He explained how the racial realities of the film industry – and at Florida State University where he studied cinema – had burdened him with an inferiority complex. At FSU, rumors had hounded him, he explained, of his having been admitted merely as one of the program’s underrepresented minorities. Producer Adele Romanski, Jenkins’ former classmate, recalls just how absurd this idea was. If anything, she said, Jenkins was the school’s standout. His short film, My Josephine (2003) – about an Arabic man living in post-9/11 America with a job cleaning American flags for free – was considered by the faculty to be the best among the student productions. “Barry was the kid who was consistently making something beyond his peer group,” Romanksi said, “He was exploring characters who were outside of the mainstream. What 21-year-old from Florida is making a movie in Arabic?”
As a film student, Jenkins fell in love with the Telluride Film Festival and would go on to curate its shorts program for the next ten years. His post-university work in the industry, however, did not leave him so uplifted. Though he found a position with Oprah Winfrey’s company as an assistant to Darnell Martin – at the time, working on the series Their Eyes Were Watching God – he mostly recalls being constantly reminded that he was “a nobody” while he worked with stars like Halle Berry.
His move to San Francisco – at first a low point – ended up being a turning point. He had moved for a relationship that would eventually crash and burn and took a job at Banana Republic to support himself. When people asked what he did for a living, he said that he was a filmmaker, before admitting that he hadn’t yet directed anything. Jenkins’ aimlessness and fizzling relationship in San Francisco, however, would end up furnishing the substance of his first critically acclaimed work, Medicine for Melancholy (2008). While its tempo and conversation-driven drama resemble Richard Linklater’s already established approach to capturing romantic relationships in his Before Sunrise trilogy, the mood and thematic essence are unique to Jenkins, who homes in on the intricacies of the black American experience with sifted intensity.
Medicine inspired other black filmmakers such as Justin Simien (director of Dear White People) and Terence Nance (director of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty), who saw in its originality the seeds of a larger black arts movement to come. “I remember halfway through my first viewing of the film,” writes Simien, “feeling that tinge of awe and envy I always feel when encountering a new and exciting cinematic voice. The black cinema revolution had begun, and I’d be damned if I’d miss the train.”
For Jenkins, Medicine opened the door to new projects, some of which flagged, others of which came to fruition. Through CAA (Creative Artists Agency), he got a deal with Focus Features, which made him a seemingly ideal offer: to develop any story of his choosing. The result was a science fiction script involving Stevie Wonders’ time travels, which spent two years in development before it was dropped. Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, based on Bill Clegg’s critically hailed memoir of his recovery from a crack addiction, met a similar fate, though its candid focus on drug dependency did preface Jenkins’ own astonishingly personal portrait in Moonlight.
Jenkins was also approached by Borscht Corporation with a more specific proposition: to set his next films in his native Miami. This is what led to his 17-minute short, “Chlorophyl” (2011), which, like Medicine, uses a couple’s fleeting relationship to explore questions of race. Jenkins also directed a sci-fi short, “Re-migration,” whose dystopian plot involves a black couple ensnared by false government promises of employment as they try to flee the effects of gentrification. Borscht Corp was also how Jenkins came into contact with McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” He and McCraney had never met before, though both were from the Miami projects and had struggled through a relationship with a drug-addicted mother. McCraney used his own life experiences as a gay black man as the inspiration for the character of Chiron.
It was around this time that Jenkins got a call from Romanski, who urged him to make another film and would go on to be Moonlight’s producer. Romanski recalls reading the script for Moonlight for the first time with an overwhelming sense of the impact it would have if she and Jenkins turned it into a film. “I remember at the end of each chapter feeling like I’d just been gut-punched,” she said. “I would pause and think, ‘This is heavy. If we do this, it’s going to matter.’”
Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, felt the same way. Jenkins was already on its radar after Medicine, and a serendipitous encounter with the company producers at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival sealed the deal. Jenkins was moderating a Q&A for 12 Years A Slave, and his Moonlight pitch piqued the interest of Plan B’s Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who advised him to concentrate exclusively on McCraney’s story.
From there, Moonlight’s production was taken up by A24, the same company that distributed last year’s Oscar-winning Room. The small production house offered the creative environment that Jenkins had wanted all along – a place where the script’s unique sensibility, away from big-industry interference, would be kept intact and brought to fruition by a group of close-knit artists he could trust. He reunited with the brilliant cinematographer of his last film, James Laxton. The two discussed at length how they would shoot Miami’s vibrant sprawl in contrast to the sad, conflicted Chiron, who shrinks inside himself as he struggles with his grim reality and his closeted identity. Composer Nicholas Britell (The Big Short) also came onboard. For the score, he used his technique of slowing down hip-hop tracks to a more orchestral tempo and isolating the swells of bass music that would become emotionally tied to Chiron’s lonely passage into the world of adult masculinity.
Three little-known actors play Chiron – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – but they do so with a poetry and nuance that rivals the craft of long-time professionals. Juan, the local drug dealer who also acts as a father figure to Chiron, is played by Mahershala Ali, while his girlfriend Teresa is played by Janelle Monáe, who also makes an award-deserving appearance this year’s biographical drama, Hidden Figures. Naomi Harris took on the role of Chiron’s mother. Despite having sworn that she would never play a female crack addict and feed into Hollywood’s negative stereotypes of black women, she changed her mind the moment she read Jenkins’ script. She knew that what he wanted to bring to the screen was not a stereotype, but his own life.
The script also had a profound effect on Monáe, who grew up poor in Kansas City and struggled to internalize a reality similar to the one in Moonlight. “I cried several times, because I know these characters,” she said. “I had cousins who sold drugs, cousins dealing with sexual identities … I just connected back to that . . . I’m not sure I can adequately describe in words how powerful and cathartic it was to see for the first time so many aspects of my life portrayed so poetically and unapologetically on screen.”
Festival audiences were also brought to tears. Jenkins recalls the somewhat surreal and overwhelming experience of seeing the effect his film had on such a broad group of spectators, including wealthy white audience members who had little in common with Chiron. The specific identity struggle of Jenkins and McCraney’s tale hardly prevented it from communicating on a universal human level and speaking, as Jenkins put it, to “anyone who has ever felt like they can’t be themselves.”
Jenkins recalls the protest at last year’s Oscars over the lack of black talent supported by an elitist, nearly all-white Hollywood. He said that while the uproar was legitimate, it didn’t leave him hopeless, as “he knew there was work coming that would address it.” “Right now,” he declared. “We’re in this moment where black culture in arts and letters is just so fucking potent right now.” Jenkins is currently working on another project with Plan B, a historical fiction series based on Colson Whitehead’s bestseller The Underground Railroad, which reimagines the historical network of slaves and abolitionists as an actual hidden railway through which blacks were smuggled into safety.
Like Simien, he is confident that the time is ripe for Hollywood’s black cinema revolution. To explain his aim in bringing untold stories like Moonlight to the screen, he referenced the black empowerment clothing line F.U.B.U (For Us, By Us), started by five men from Queens who wanted to create a wholly African-American-owned-and-operated company. “Moonlight falls into that vein,” Jenkins explained, before adding poetically, “It’s for us, by us. At the same time, it’s meant to be shared beyond us.”