‘Moonlight’ to dawn: An interview with director Barry Jenkins

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Nishali Naik/Staff

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There are two tiers of great films. First, there are movies like “Avatar” that dazzle audiences with incredible visual effects. But in this tier, the smoke and mirrors lack true staying power by its very reliance on the artificial and the visual. Then there are films like “Boyhood,” which ask audiences to invest in quiet character moments, culminating in an emotional payoff. Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” transcends either tier, becoming a vital film that tells a quiet story that is both gracefully told but undeniably emotional.

“Moonlight” is split in three distinct pieces to form a biographical triptych of Chiron, a young, gay Black man living in South Florida. Audiences watch a child who hides from bullies in an abandoned apartment turn into an introverted teenager who is forced to struggle with his sexuality amid a collapsed home life. Later, we see a young man driven by his community’s expectations of Black masculinity, becoming jarringly unrecognizable from the sensitive boy who initially inhabited the film — save for an interred tenderness that only those closest to him see.

The heartrending narrative of “Moonlight” is complemented by James Laxton’s emotive cinematography, which places Chiron in a uniquely Floridian portrait of piercing pinks and warm blues. Nicholas Britell’s score haunts Laxton’s shots: A lonely, urgent violin cuts through a swaying, solemn piano. It’s a score that sneaks into your head and insists on its residence for days. These qualities coalesce to make “Moonlight” a universally emotional film but especially for the film’s director, Barry Jenkins.

“There are certain things about my biography that I hadn’t dealt with in a film before,” Jenkins said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I ended up putting in way more of myself than I expected. It was cathartic.”

Jenkins was looking for a project to follow up his directorial debut, “Medicine for Melancholy,” when he stumbled on a play written by MacArthur genius grant recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney — “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” With Jenkins and McCraney sharing similar childhoods (both grew up in the same Liberty City housing development in South Florida) the film seemed like the next step for Jenkins as a filmmaker.

Their common background formed the thematic basis of “Moonlight.” “(The film’s themes) are rooted in the fact that both Tarell and myself had a mom who was addicted to crack cocaine. So that element of it is a part of our identities. We also grew up in a very tough neighborhood where the idea of what was acceptable in masculinity and what was not acceptable was something that you had to deal with every day,” Jenkins said.

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Thus, real-life characters and situations from Jenkins and McCraney’s past became projected onto the life of Chiron. An example is Chiron’s mother Paula, played by Naomie Harris, who we initially meet as a protective nurse but who slowly descends into drug addiction. By the time Chiron enters his teen years, he has lost his support system, as he often comes home to find Paula begging for cash for one more high.

With his home life deteriorating at an early age, Chiron finds surrogate parents in Juan and Teresa, played by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae, respectively. Teresa and Juan encourage Chiron to embrace his identity without conforming to conventional understandings of masculinity and sexuality. Despite this positive influence, Juan is a drug dealer, which Jenkins said was a vital aspect of the conception of “Moonlight.” “The whole piece originated with his character. Tarell had an actual father figure with this character growing up in the neighborhood. It’s why he wrote the play in the first place,” he said.

Jenkins’ personal investment in “Moonlight” made the process of making the film an intimate one. Ever since “Moonlight” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, director Barry Jenkins has been receiving unilateral praise for conveying heartache and loneliness through restraint, not forceful dialogue. This isn’t by mistake, as Jenkins auteurial imprint is one of utmost subtlety, relying on his focus to make apparent the quiet introspection of the main characters. “We thought we would create a space for characters to just be and reveal themselves. Not necessarily in real time but in reflection and repose,” Jenkins said. “I think when you do that, you inherently get more nuanced depictions.”

Jenkins’ subdued direction lends the film some of its best moments. In a particularly memorable scene, Juan takes Chiron to a brilliantly blue Florida beach for an impromptu swimming lesson. The camera straddles the surface of the water to place Juan and the infinite expanse of a cloud-mottled skyline front and center, as Juan holds Chiron afloat. It’s a shot that silently screams spirituality, and with Jenkins at the helm, Chiron’s swim then becomes symbolic of a baptism. “I believe in the idea of spiritual transference of energy between men, in particular, between Black men, that we don’t see often represented in arts and letters,” Jenkins said. “It’s a movie that is paced on these subtle, nuanced gestures.”

Jenkins’ nuanced direction also helps “Moonlight” resist genre, which makes it unique in an age when films seems nothing more than carbon copies of each other. For Jenkins, it was important that the film combine elements of coming-of-age films and LGBTQ+ films without being restrained by either genre. In this regard, “Moonlight” straddles genres to help tell the story it needs to. We see Chiron grow up, but unlike most coming-of-age films, he doesn’t necessarily become the person we wanted him to be. Chiron’s sexuality is an integral part of his character, and when it is depicted with Jenkin’s sense of nuance, the film becomes cinematically unique — a film that isn’t afraid of its LGBTQ+ center but defies easy categorization with the sheer universality of its pathos.   

Near the end of the film, a friend from Chiron’s past asks, “Who is you, Chiron?” The title of McCraney’s play comes from the idea that “in moonlight black boys look blue,” but the film argues they shouldn’t. “Moonlight” forces us to see people as they are. “I hope audiences come to terms with the idea that these characters and this place that myself and Tarell are from is just like any other place. These people are human beings. They have to deal with shit just like anybody else,” Jenkins said. “Moonlight” is Chiron’s story, but where the film succeeds is making us realize that there are pieces of Chiron in everyone.

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].