Few films are more quintessentially 2016 than Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. A meditative exploration of how protagonist Chiron forms his identity as a black man who has sex with men, it’s as visually gorgeous as it is thoughtful. By excelling at both, it refuses to pander to the contemporary critical rubric that favors politics over aesthetics. And yet, its representational importance cannot be understated: A movie about black queer manhood that’s this sensitive and subtle is a reassuring bookend on a year that kicked off with the #OscarsSoWhite social media movement. The heretofore rapturous response Moonlight has received, both at Telluride and the New York Film Festival, suggests that cinema is moving in the right direction. It is nothing less than essential viewing.
Based on Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight is a story of the multitudes that Chiron contains, examined at three different stages in his life: prepubescence, high school, and mid-20s. From his impoverished upbringing in Miami where he’s unofficially adopted by a drug-dealing father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali) to the film’s final reconciliation with Chiron’s old flame Kevin (André Holland), Moonlight compassionately examines the weight of societal expectations on the formation of identity and manhood.
When director Barry Jenkins was in New York earlier this month for the NYFF, I spoke with him about his film, its politics, and his own path to comfort with his masculinity. An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.
JEZEBEL: A lot of people have called this movie “gay.” Do you think that’s a fair description?
BARRY JENKINS: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s central the identity of the character, so it should be central to the identity of the film.
I ask because I thought there was some ambiguity to Chrion’s specific sexuality, and more and more we see people voicing their unwillingness to identify with labels.
True, but the story rests on Tarell McCraney, who’s openly and outwardly gay. I also think, too, that it’s a period piece and I don’t think Tarell and I identify as millennials. But I see exactly where you’re coming from… but I want to know how you’re framing your question because nobody’s asked me that yet and I’m curious to explore it.
Traditionally, we’ve viewed things in binary form, and for men particularly, it’s been like a one-drop rule applied to sexuality: If he’s had sexual contact at any point with a man, people will inevitably dub him gay. I think as our understanding of sexuality develops as a culture, we realize that’s not necessarily correct.
That’s a good point. It’s never in the script, it’s never said in the film, but I never think of the character Kevin as being gay. I always kind of think of him as being bi. But the idea of the label doesn’t take hold. I just think of these two guys and whatever the hell is their relationship. It’s like an amorphous, not fully formed kind of thing. To circle back to your question, maybe it’s not a gay film. But I also think that, again, it’s so central to Tarell’s identity, and it’s central to whatever Chiron thinks he needs to repress in his own personality and identity. In that way, maybe you could work your way around understanding why people frame the film as a gay film. For me, it’s just about this character, and about this place. The last [interviewer] asked, “Why don’t they consummate their relationship at the end of the film?” It’s like, that’s not the journey for the character. I also think that would have been too conventional a resolution for that character, who I think has a long way to go, even after the film ends, before he resolves a lot of his shit.
Chiron is searching for something a little bit more fundamental than sex. Even as someone who is often frustrated by the lack of sex in queer media, because sometimes it seems like it’s avoided to appease those who are squeamish about depictions of gay sex, that’s not what I got from this movie. It’s hard for queer issues not to drown things out, but this movie deftly balances several elements to explore what it means to be a “man” and how experiences as well as societal imperatives influence and convolute that.
And how societal imperatives dictate the kind of man you feel like you are and the kind of man you feel like you need to be to survive or to withstand or swim with the current. That was always my way in to the world.
Because you’re straight.
Because I’m straight and yet I’m handling this material that’s rooted in Tarell’s experience. I wanted to preserve his voice but I also wanted to take ownership of it. For me, the idea of masculinity and the world that Tarell and I grew up in, I try to make it as specific as possible and as small as possible, how that world can tell you, “This is what a man is. This is how he walks. This is how he dresses. This is how he treats women. This is how he treats other men. This is how he wants other men to view him.” I think if you get enough of that, by which I mean too much of that, you can sort of lose track of who you are and how you want to look at other men and how you want to dress and how you want to speak to women.
When [McCraney’s play] came to me, the guy who sent it to me said, “This isn’t about you… but it’s about you.” I couldn’t immediately get to what that was about, but I sort of took a step back and figured out where my experience and Tarell’s experience aligned. It wasn’t in this very sort of elevated, poetic way. It was very concretely: “Oh shit, that’s right—I remember what it was like to be in this neighborhood and see the other dudes behaving certain ways and being like, ‘Oh shit, if they see me behaving this way, I’m fucked up.’” And then you start to extract: What does it feel like at 10, what does it feel like at 16, what does it look like if it’s not checked at 25? And what would it have been like for Tarell to have not checked it and allowed himself to become his own person? And then from there, it was like, “OK, I’ve got it.” The biggest thing was having these conversations with Tarrell and showing him the piece once I had done my translation of it and getting his sign-off. It wasn’t a sign-off like, “Hey, Tarell, you’re gay, and you’re a playwright—can you make sure I’m doing this right?” It was like, “Have I treated your characters fairly? Have I taken what you’ve put into the world and accurately translated it to the screen?” And so far, it seems like we did a good job.
You mentioned specificity, but the burden of a movie that shows underrepresented groups, especially a film as intersectional as this, is that it will be seen as bigger beyond its characters’ narratives. And an unavoidable fact is that we don’t have a lot of depictions of black men who have sex with men on screen. I wonder how much of that responsibility you accepted or cared about or thought about.
I didn’t think about it, but I definitely accepted it, because there are other elements in the film too. The idea of a drug dealer actually taking the time to explain to a kid what a faggot is. Or to see a black man cradle a black boy in the ocean, teaching him how to swim. Or, the biggest one for me, is when André Holland cooks for Trevante [Rhodes, who plays the final iteration of Chiron]. I’ve never seen a black man cook for another man in a film. It’s like, “Why the fuck haven’t I seen that?” It felt like we had to get all of those things right because if we got them wrong, I felt like I would be doing a disservice to Tarell’s piece and to the characters and to the community—the neighborhood Tarell and I grew up in. But intellectually, I just try as a filmmaker, as an artist to not think about those things. It’s about, “Is this the right kind of kitchen?” “Is he wearing the right things?” “Is he saying the right thing?” and just trying to be authentic. The conversation we’re having now happened way at the earliest stage, before I flew down to Miami to ask for Tarell’s hand in creative marriage. Once that was done and he said that he trusted me, it was about, “Let’s just do it right.” “Let’s find actors that have chemistry.” “Let’s make sure we’re capturing the tension that’s in the air when two kids sit on the beach and have their first sexual experience.”
Did you have any trepidation about casting casting a straight man (Trevante Rhodes) as the final iteration of Chiron?
No. Because of the time we had to shoot the film, I thought I was more capable of working that way in than the opposite. Someone who can identify with the persona the character has put on, that can perform that, rather than someone who could intellectually create the persona the character has put on. But I will say, we had an open audition process and I actually never asked any of these guys what their sexual orientation was. It wasn’t an issue. I had an idea in my head of what the character was, and Trevante, no matter who he’s fucking, was not it. He came in to read for the role of Kevin and I was like, “No, you’re not that guy.” He was even more buff than he is now, but he was so fucking vulnerable and I could hear the other character’s words coming out of his mouth. I said, “There’s something in this guy, and there’s something so jarring about this person being who this kid has become,” and yet I could see in his eyes that he was still that kid on the beach, who we see break at the end of the second story. I thought, “This is my character.” And what I mean by that is: I am now going to alter the scope of the character to fit Trevante, ‘cause he just felt so right. All of the casting decisions were made that way.
I think the casting, as well of the rest of the movie works tremendously well, but as far as bigger picture statements go, Chiron is traditionally masculine and queer. He refutes so many cinematic stereotypes... you use a straight guy to get him there. It seems clear, though, from talking to you that these politics are secondary to your purpose.
They absolutely were. We made a point, I don’t know if it was for HR reasons or what, to not ask anyone who auditioned what their orientation was. But for my purposes, it seemed the most direct path. Even when Trevante came in, that was not the path at all, and yet somehow looking at that guy’s face, it worked. I’m a very intuitive artist. I try to go with my gut. When someone walks into the room and you see your work in that person, you just have to go with that.
I almost regret banging the drums of identity politics so hard, because this movie is completely gorgeous and astonishingly acted. But I think it’s refreshing when a movie like this comes along, especially in a year like this.
Yeah, for a whole host of reasons. This movie started about three and a half years ago, so to have it organically end up in this moment it’s kind of amazing. I don’t know why that is or what the alchemy was between Tarell’s mission and my mission and all of our partners’ mission making this film, making it now. But it feels like I was ready to tell this story. I could not have made this film in 2010, 2011. I don’t think I had the emotional or intellectual space.
Were you comfortable enough with your masculinity back then to do it?
Are you now?
Damn right I am! How could I not be? It would be a disservice to Tarell, a disservice to the characters if I weren’t. This topic comes up quite a lot. There have been people who’ve tried to make works about others based purely on empathy and it’s just not enough. Usually the ceiling on that is much lower, but because Tarell’s piece was so sharp and specific and when I read it I felt so compelled that to not have done it, to not have stood up, would have been a cowardly thing to do. If that means I had to get more comfortable with my manhood to do it, that’s what had to be done.
Did this movie make you more comfortable with it?
Absolutely, for a whole set of reasons. When the Supreme Court [made same-sex marriage legal nationally] and everybody changed their Facebook profile to the rainbow colors, to me that was being a passive ally, expressing passive empathy, and I felt the responsibility to get past that and be an active ally and employ active empathy. When I changed my profile to the rainbow, a cousin of mine was like, “What’s goin’ on, man? What are you doin’?” I live so far from everybody I grew up with. I realized, “Oh yeah, I guess I could be gay and they just wouldn’t know.” I thought, “What’s an appropriate response to this?” And I was like, “You know what? I’m not going to respond. Fuck you.” I mean, I love my cousin, but it was just more reason to stand up. That was before we went and shot. I had to stand up.
Moonlight is in select theaters Friday.