Capturing 'Moonlight' - director Barry Jenkins' movie has wowed critics
A tightly-budgeted coming-of-age drama has wowed critics and is in the running for eight Oscars. Our film critic meets its director
Released in the US with little fanfare last October, Moonlight has become the surprise package of this year's awards season. A tightly-budgeted drama with challenging themes, an unknown director and all-black cast, it's been lauded to the skies by critics, won the Golden Globe for Best Picture and is in the running for no less than eight Academy Awards.
It's no accident: Barry Jenkins' film is beautifully made, and turns what might have been a relentlessly grim story into something oddly uplifting. But what's most gratifying about its success is the fact that Moonlight is a rigorously authentic piece, created by two men who know exactly what they're talking about.
Jenkins adapted the screenplay from a play by Tarell McCraney, who grew up gay in Liberty City and was raised by a drug-addicted mother. Jenkins, who at 37 is just a year older than McCraney, also began life in Liberty City, his mother was also a drug-addict, and though they never met, the two men attended the same school.
"My life and Tarell's life are pretty similar," Jenkins agrees, "so although it wasn't directly autobiographical for me, it all felt intensely personal even though I was telling someone else's story." Jenkins, though, is straight, and thought long and hard about whether he was the right person to tackle this complex story.
He tells it in three chapters, which focus on different aspects of the troubled life of Chiron, an African-American boy whose emerging sexuality makes him a target for vicious bullying while his home life offers little solace. Naomie Harris plays his crack-addicted mother, Mahershala Ali a local drug dealer who becomes an unlikely protector, and Chiron himself is played by three different actors as a boy, teenager and man.
Jenkins insisted that Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes were kept apart during the shoot, because "I really didn't want them to try to mimic each other's performances."
"I think if you're playing Chiron," he explains, "and you're taking the character from another actor, you'll be trying to remember 'okay, how did he walk, how did he talk?' and so on, then you're living in this past performance of someone else. I didn't want that. I think one of the themes in the film is how these young men from communities like the one I grew up in are forced to reshape themselves, so I wanted the character to be embodied by a completely different person to hit home with that notion."
McCraney escaped from Liberty City through writing, and for Jenkins, it was sport. He won a football scholarship at Florida State University, and while there, began studying filmmaking.
And perhaps it's the two men's unique insights into life in an American ghetto that has given Moonlight such a refreshingly original take on a hackneyed cinematic theme.
"It wasn't necessarily that countering stereotypes was the point," he says, "but I think it would also be false to say that I'm not aware of what the audience is bringing into the cinema. If I read you a synopsis of Moonlight, you might assume what the film looks like, or what it sounds like, and I did realise that we were telling a story that wasn't going to conform to those expectations."
The character of Paula, Chiron's brittle and chaotic mother, is particularly powerful.
"For me the way that character functions is, it's not that she does not love her son, but there's this deep well of pain that allows her to succumb to the addiction, but even through the addiction you see that there are these moments of clarity where the mom supercedes all. And to me that makes it even more tragic, and I love that. I think we're all these characters, they're doing the best they can, and it's not all roses, you know."
Naomie Harris has been nominated for an Oscar, as has Mahershala Ali, whose portrayal of the charismatic drug dealer Juan offers the sternest challenge to lazy stereotyping.
"A friend of mine said to me that a black drug dealer is only ever a black drug dealer," Jenkins explains, "he's not a father, he's not a son, he's not an uncle, he is what he does. And this whole piece originated out of Tarell McCraney's recollection of an actual friendship that he had with the local drug dealer who took him under his wing.
"The whole piece, none of it, would exist without that character - so it's wonderful that that character is the one that resonates with people the most."
In the film, Chiron's homosexuality is the source of much cruelty, but Jenkins doesn't think that's any more of a problem in African-American communities than it is anywhere else.
"I don't think there's anything inherent in blackness that is directly opposed to queerness," he says, "but there are other factors at work.
"I think the performance of masculinity in the black community has often been the difference between life and death: in America, in particular, black people were brought over as slaves, to be subjugated, and so once black people received their freedom, there was always the threat that it might be taken away again.
"So to protect against this, this almost hyper-masculine representation of manhood became necessary as a statement of, you know, we will not be broken, we will not be taken back to that place. And so I think masculinity, or the nuance of masculinity, those things are quite complex in the black community, and there's a historical reason for it."
In light of recent events in America, Moonlight seems a more overtly political film now than it did a few months back.
"You know," Jenkins says, "it's interesting, because I keep getting asked questions about the new president.
"And it might be convenient to frame the movie as a response to these things, but you have to remember this was made, for me, under one of the most glorious periods in American government, where I could look and see this very graceful, eloquent symbol that reflected me.
"That's the umbrella under which this movie was created, and yet I love that even in times of relative goodwill, we were still trying to speak true to some very dark things and some very complex things. And we will continue to do so as we move into a less graceful and more contentious four years."