Black boys look blue

Director Barry Jenkins on crafting ‘Moonlight’ with authenticity

David Bornfriend / A24

Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy explored San Francisco through the lens of Micah and Jo’, who turn a one-night stand into a day exploring and engaging in deep conversations on race, gentrification, and culture in a city where black people, as the film points out, make up only 7% of the population. It was Jenkins’ first feature film and the indie received rave reviews from critics, three Independent Spirit Award nominations, and earned him a place on the list of filmmakers to watch. That was eight years ago.

It took a script that hit home to bring the filmmaker out of his hiatus. A friend introduced Jenkins to MacArthur Genius and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s beautifully nuanced and deeply personal coming-of-age play In The Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The play,which he wrote for a project in drama school and was never published, is centered around a queer black boy named Chiron growing up in the hood in Miami and is based on McCraney’s own upbringing in Liberty City. “I read it and it felt like there was something here, and you shouldn’t look away from it,” Jenkins told me.

Somehow, the two had never crossed paths before coming together to create Jenkins’ second feature film, Moonlight, despite the fact that both McCraney (36) and Jenkins (37) grew up in Miami’s Liberty City housing projects in the ’80s. They went to the same middle school and high school. Both of their mothers battled an addiction to crack cocaine. Jenkins’ mother has been HIV positive for 24 years and McCraney’s mother died from AIDS when he was 23. “There were scenes that he had written and I knew exactly what that was like, I kind of lived that moment,” said Jenkins.

Like the play, Moonlight tells the coming-of-age story of the protagonist Chiron in three different stages of his life as he explores the man he wants to be through his sexuality and what it truly means to be loved with the help of the people he encounters who guide him along the way. Moonlight is a film that thrives in its silence and the state of the characters just being, only turning to dialogue when it feels necessary to connect or reveal things. The film doesn’t try too hard to challenge stereotypes, but is nuanced and feels real because of Jenkins’ commitment to authentic storytelling. “Instead of taking full authorship over the piece, I was very respectful of Tarell’s voice. To me, as a person who likes to make personal works, that was the most important thing to me, to preserve the first-person voice of Tarrell’s play,” Jenkins said.

Moonlight feels necessary because it shows something that we rarely see on the big screen: intimacy between black men, both in paternal and romantic relationships. Juan, who is a father-like figure to Chiron, teaches him how to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Kevin, who is the first guy Chiron kisses, cooks for him.

I chatted with Barry Jenkins about Moonlight, how his conception of masculinity and sexuality was shaped growing up, and the importance of making sure stories are authentic.

What was your relationship with the ideas of masculinity and sexuality growing up?

I didn’t really think much about sexuality growing up, I have to say. I think when you’re a cis hetero male, or if you feel that you are a cis hetero man, it’s very privileged you don’t have to deal with a lot of the shit the world forces you to deal with if you identify as anything else. And then, masculinity. I was similar to Chiron in the second story. I just kept to myself. I didn’t want anybody to fuck with me so I didn’t really fuck with anybody else. Then I started to play sports as a way to fit in.

There’s a scene in the movie where the kids in the first story go into the bathroom to basically compare their penis sizes. It’s funny because that didn’t actually happen to Tarell, and he’s gay. That happened to me. We would go into the bathroom and compare and call it sword fighting. It never felt like a sexual thing, but it was. It very overtly felt like this thing about masculinity and masochism. Whoever had the biggest dick was considered the toughest guy. And sometimes the smallest dude would have the biggest dick and it would throw you for a loop like, what the fuck is this? Oh, I haven’t hit my growth spurt yet. I remember conversations when I was like 10 or 11 years old where guys would be like, are you a virgin, and blah blah blah, and we were all fucking virgins. I think in the back of at least my head I knew we’re all lying because this is what we have to do.

What you have to do to be considered macho and strong.

The world is telling us, this is how you be a man. In that kind of way, it was always around us. None of that stuff is literally spoken in the script, but in the way the kids interact both in the first story and second story we try to convey the same feeling of the world trying to influence these kids to behave a certain way.

Did making this film change your perspective?

It definitely made me more comfortable. I think in order to tackle some of the material in this film I had to go places I had personally never been before. I never want the actors to experience something that I keep myself away from.

You can’t be like, “I’m making this movie, but I don’t want to go there.”

Exactly. For a lot of the actors, it was maybe their first or second time doing anything. I needed to be as fully present with them as possible. I had to expand. I’m a straight man, and I felt like there are certain stories that you can only tell from a first-person perspective. As the writer and director, I’m the author, it’s in my voice, so I had to get to a place where a) I could be ultra comfortable with the material, where it can feel like I was conveying my own personal experiences and then b) where I felt like I could do that in Tarell’s voice because I’m a black man, but I’m an other as far as the LGBTQ community is concerned. But I couldn’t do this with Chiron and feel like an other, he had to be me. I had to expand the breadth of who I am. Trevante Rhodes [who plays Chiron in the third stage of his life] gives this great answer because he gets asked often as a straight man playing a gay character, how do you feel, and he always says love is love, and then he breaks it down and he says I just happen to be born as a man who’s attracted to women, had I been born as a man attracted to men, I would still be the same man.

Because your sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily change who you are as a person.

Exactly. Now, I do think the way the world treats people of certain sexual orientations, that can then be just like being black. There are certain days you walk into a store, you walk down the street where you just know the world is giving you some energy and it’s a part of you that has to sort of buff up yourself or give that energy back. So, no doubt there would be some fluctuations, but to him he would be the same person. I think that was a beautiful sort of experience to go through, because I’ve never dealt with characters like this before.

MoonlightDavid Bornfriend / A24

In Moonlight, the dialogue feels very necessary when it happens. But there’s also a lot of quiet. Why was that important?

It’s not so much that quietness was important, but the way that we are telling the story with these three chapters instead of telling a coming-of-age story where we just churn through all these plot points—I wanted to do the opposite where we take these very specific moments and actually watch people react to them. Like, when I wasn’t in here, were you talking?

No.

No. But when we’re watching a film, there’s always at least two people who are yap yap yapping. I wanted the audience to actually observe this guy and watch who he is when he isn’t performing, so you can rhyme it against who he is when he has to go out into the world and sort of deal with these things that the world is telling him that he should be or should not be. Also, I just feel like we rarely get to see anybody in a film evolve in real time, and usually that evolution takes place when they are thinking or processing, not when they are speaking or acting, you know? I’ve rarely seen it with characters from the world that Tarell and I are from. I just wanted to create enough space so that when the words come they have meaning, and you get to see how the world is affecting this person purely based on how they walk, what they don’t say, who they are watching and who’s watching them.

MoonlightDavid Bornfriend / A24

The ocean scene tackles so many things. There’s the racist history of black people not being able to even go to the beach. There’s the stereotype that black people can’t swim. Then there’s this little black boy getting taught to swim by a black man, who serves as his father figure in the movie.

In the Atlantic Ocean! Where basically you can see only their skin from the waist up.

Right. And then there’s the slowed-down classical music during the scene that makes it feel like beautiful painting. There are so many layers.

The swimming scene in particular was about the spiritual transference that does happen between black men and black kids. This idea of nurturing and just the positive energy of that. Juan is literally teaching this kid how to float. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, this is how you survive. You didn’t know you could, but I’m going to teach you and tell you that you have this power. It was really important to me because the character Juan has this huge significance over the last two chapters of the story even though he’s not physically present and I wanted to show this spiritual transference that I think does happen amongst our people. I mean we don’t see it very often in arts and letters, but it does happen.

There is a similar feeling and music when the boys are playing on the football field in the first chapter.

I played that game growing up as a kid and it just always felt like everything was possible. I forgot what time it was and I forgot what I had to do the rest of the day. I wanted to find music that could convey the sort of untainted beauty of kids in this wide open space just getting to fucking run and exert themselves. And then at the end of it it becomes about power, because it always comes back to power.

20151116_015419_Moonlight_D25_0375.tifDavid Bornfriend

There’s a moment about 30 minutes into the film where Chiron asks Juan what the word “faggot” means. I feel like that’s a moment where the viewer sort of realizes that they have these judgments and expectations of Juan, and you then prove them wrong.

The movie isn’t meant to defy expectations, but speaking of the character Juan in particular, because he’s the one who answers the question—a friend of mine was saying a black drug dealer can only ever be a black drug dealer, but Tarell and I grew up in a neighborhood where black drug dealers were many, many, many things. They were fathers, they were sons, they were uncles. And yes, it’s a weird thing for Tarell and I to say because both of our moms became addicted to drugs and yet, these men, they were providers too in a certain sense. It’s very complicated. We didn’t set out to defy stereotypes, but the whole piece is based on Tarell’s actual friendship, this paternal relationship he had with this drug dealer who protected him from the neighborhood.

We’re at this interesting point in entertainment where we are talking more and more about who can tell what story. There was this great quote in the New York Times where filmmaker and actor Jo Chiang basically says that there are “two camps” in terms of who owns the narrative. The first is you should only tell stories from your perspective or from a perspective you identify with, and the second is you should be allowed the artistic freedom to tackle any narrative, but you can’t tell that story authentically without researching, learning, and respecting where it’s coming from. I think that’s something that you did with Moonlight.

Yes, that was kind of how I approached this. So, two things—one, I could never have done with without Tarell’s material, I just couldn’t have told the story. There are scenes in this film that I just couldn’t have originated with me. And then two, I think that second quote is true, I had to be very respectful of Tarell’s experience, very respectful of Tarell’s words, very respectful of the characters he created. I do think there is a way that you can wed empathy and good intentions with someone else’s first person perspective if you’re very respectful and responsible in how you’re telling the story. Instead of overcoming his voice, I wanted to meld my voice with Tarell’s. I think you have to be very cognizant of that when you go through this process of making a movie about an experience you haven’t lived.

You can’t just be like, I like this idea and I want to make it.

That’s not how it works, because in some ways that can become fetishistic, and that usually yields very, very bad results. This was something that I wasn’t really worried about and I try not to have these things in my mind, but what was on my mind was I have to do this right because there aren’t too many films that get made about young gay black men from the hood and there’s a responsibility in that. It’s not that this is the only version of this character’s life, however, right now it’s the only one that’s going to be in the cinema on Friday. And maybe, the only one that will be in nationwide cinemas this year. So, that puts a lot of weight on the image. The point wasn’t, okay, I have to make it positive, or I have to make it happy, I’ve got to make it awesome. No, it was I just have to make it true, so that if someone walks into that theater and they are from a neighborhood like Liberty City, they grew up with a mom like Paula, and a life kind of like Chiron, they go okay, this isn’t bullshit. This actually happened to somebody because it feels like it happened to me.