Nominated for six Oscars, Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed drama Moonlight is a rare film that dares to grapple with sexuality and race, and its story is so personal that it transcends the powerful message. Jenkins has an artistic eye that cleverly explores the themes from angles we haven’t seen before.
Set in Miami, this is the story of Chiron, who we first meet as a 10-year-old (played by Alex Hibbert) hiding from his crack addict mother (the astounding Naomie Harris) and classmates who bully him because he’s different. But he doesn’t yet know what being gay means. He is rescued by a local drug dealer (Oscar favourite Mahershala Ali), who becomes his mentor.
We then meet Chiron as a teen (Ashton Sanders) who’s still being bullied, which complicates his growing attraction to his best friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). And a decade later Chiron (now the beefy Trevante Rhodes) decides to repair his friendship with Kevin (now Andre Holland).
This three-part structure and the subtle filmmaking allow the issues to come through quietly in the background as the characters grapple with their relationships in sometimes unnervingly honest ways. The film is gorgeously shot and edited, finely acted and packed with insight into what it’s like to grow up both gay and as a black man in urban America. But it’s easy for anyone to identify with how Chiron feels.
To assemble the screenplay, writer-director Jenkins started with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and mixed in elements from his own similar childhood. Both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in Miami with addict mothers, although while McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight.
So when his friends gave him the play to read, Jenkins was caught off-guard. “They said it wasn’t about me, but it was about me,” he explains. “And when I read it, it was that exactly. It wasn’t about me. And it was way, way about me. The autobiography is shared! There were times I would phone Tarell and ask him, ‘Wait, did this happen to you or me?’”
He says that the most striking character for him was Chiron’s mother. “With Tarell’s piece, I saw the notion that the character Naomie Harris plays, Paula, was very close to my mom,” Jenkins says. “Everything tracked. But because of the distance, because it wasn’t technically my story, I thought I’d get to the point where I would be watching this kid, Chiron, and I wouldn’t be watching myself. Maybe it was good it came about that way, because it allowed me to remove this block I’d had: that I didn’t want to make a movie about myself.”
So as he adapted the script, Jenkins maintained Chiron’s homosexuality as a central element. “He’s someone who’s very curious and open about the world,” he says. “But that’s slowly beaten out of him by the reaction of the world around him. In love we expand, and in fear we retract. He’s a character that wants to love and be loved.”