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‘Moonlight’ director: Gender expression can be ‘the difference between life and death’

Steven M. Meyer for the New York Times

Warning: This piece contains spoilers!

This week, the triptych coming-of-age film Moonlight won five awards: four Gotham Awards (two of which were best feature and best screenplay) and one Independent Spirit Award (best ensemble). From the looks of it, this is just the first wave of awards-season events the independent darling will sweep. The film, which received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, gives voice and representation to queer black men and a refreshing complexity to its characters.

As Jenkins told Fusion earlier this year, the point wasn’t to make the movie positive or awesome, it was to make it true. “If someone walks into that theater and they are from a neighborhood like Liberty City,” he said, “they go, ‘Okay, this isn’t bullshit. This actually happened to someone because it feels like it happened to me.’”

Yesterday, Moonlight’s director Barry Jenkins, along with actors Andre Holland and Naomie Harris, sat down with journalist Logan Hill for a Times Talk at the Brooklyn Public Library. They discussed the importance of the arts, creating his version of the black experience, what it means to make “universal” work, and what’s next for Jenkins: a limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad.

On playing a drug addict not rooted in stereotypes:

Naomie Harris: Barry asked me to play his mum, basically. I was like, ‘How can I say no?’ So often when you have a crack addict portrayed that person becomes just their addiction and they lose their humanity and complexity.

On the characters’ changes throughout the film:

Barry Jenkins: The world is very aggressively projecting all these things onto young men and onto young women…Rather than telling you how that change transpired, you can feel that change in the [physical] embodiment of the characters. With Kevin and Chiron, we’re literally changing the bodies of the young men.

On why Juan dying wasn’t made a huge deal in the movie:

Barry Jenkins: Like many of these men who grew up in the place that Tarell and I grew up in, Chiron came home and he was like: ‘Where’s Juan?’ And Juan was just gone, just snatched at a moment’s notice. I wanted the audience to have the same feeling.

“I think this movie is at the perfect moment in time when we desperately need art that speaks to people in this way.”

- Naomie Harris

On the stakes of performing masculinity:

Barry Jenkins: In the world that Tarell [Alvin McCraney, the playwright who wrote the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, on which the movie was based] and I grew up in, performative masculinity can be the difference between life and death. There’s a way a man looks at another man. There’s a way a man doesn’t look at another man…It wasn’t always spoken, but you could feel it.

On releasing this film in America’s political climate:

Barry Jenkins: I never imagined this film would play at the same time that president-elect [Trump] was the president-elect…On social media, I get all theses messages: I’m so glad this movie exist right now. This is where I go to find some semblance of the world I feel like I live in: a world that embraces diversity, that embraces difference…It’s for the people who need to see themselves or need to see something that reminds them of the possibilities in the American dream.

"Moonlight": A Night of Music and Conversation Times Talk.Steven M Meyer

On why the arts are important during these times:

Naomie Harris: I think this movie is at the perfect moment in time when we desperately need art that speaks to people in this way. It’s speaking to people in a very particular way because it bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart, which is actually where real change is effected.

On universality in film:

Barry Jenkins: I don’t there’s this universality about the film in that it relates to everyone. I think that Tarell and I are two black boys, from one black neighborhood with a few black blocks with moms who went through a certain ordeal…I think that’s where universality comes from, it’s not about it being relevant to everyone. People see the film and they can see something about themselves, not something about everyone.

On portraying the black experience onscreen:

Barry Jenkins: People ask me, ‘What do you think Moonlight says about the black experience?’ And I’m like, ‘Not much.’ It says a lot about me and Tarell’s experience in the sense that we’re black menI think all these [black filmmakers] are creating work that is addressing these very finite depictions or versions of the black experience. It’s a very beautiful thing. And they started as a response to something, that people actually felt the lack of these voices, of these stories.