How Barry Jenkins Turned the Misery and Beauty of the Queer Black Experience Into the Year's Best Movie

How Barry Jenkins Turned the Misery and Beauty of the Queer Black Experience Into the Year's Best MovieEXPAND
Jeff Lipsky for Stockland Martel

Black American culture has cultivated a tendency to flourish in the face of tragedy; grinding lemonade out of strange fruit has been a staple practice for radical renewal since we got dragged here. So much so that nobody blinks when even our billion-dollar pop idols fall into protean, resistant formation.

Beyond Queen Bey's visual album, 2016 has yielded a bumper-crop renaissance for those who savor cinematic portrayals of the culture's Adult Contemporary register — Black flicks that ring with vernacular specificity and confidence while offering modern-day takes on the national body politic, grown-ass sexual manners, alienation, and rage: the rerelease of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust; Nate Parker's assault-checkered Birth of a Nation; Cheo Hodari Coker's adaptation of Marvel's Luke Cage; Raoul Peck's James Baldwin doc, I Am Not Your Negro; Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar for OWN; Ezra Edelman's epic doc-series, O.J.: Made in America, for ESPN; Issa Rae's Insecure; Baz Luhrmann and Nelson George's Netflix escapade, The Get Down; Arthur Jafa's widely celebrated video-art essay Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, now at Gavin Brown Enterprises in Harlem; and Donald Glover's Atlanta.

All these productions have fed a ravenous Black spectatorship hungering for a cinema resonant with this #BlackLivesMatter millennium. Motion pictures as stridently moody and adventurous as this period's best hip-hop, r&b, and Black rock. (Take notes if you've spent the year unhip and in a bathysphere re: Kendrick Lamar, D'Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest, Childish Gambino, Gary Clark Jr., Solange, Frank Ocean, and Janelle Monáe, who also co-stars in two major films this awards season, Hidden Figures and this article's featured subject.) The social-media threads provoked by these projects have proved as elucidating and enlightening as their narrative arcs. None, however, has garnered as much pre–awards seasons buzz as director Barry Jenkins's Moonlight.

Full-frontal Black expressivity is generally what pays the bills out here. The poignant brilliance of Moonlight derives from the many-splendored ways it enshrines something rarer: Black male erotic repression and unconsummated desire in the face of bullying and familial breakdown. Which is to say that Moonlight's luminously dark and lovely palette mirrors the aesthetics of Miles Davis, a graphic and tonal conceptualist who long ago established the high bar for implosive, convulsive blues revelations drawn from Black America's existential interior. As shot by DP James Laxton, Moonlight serves up a polychromatic bouquet of Milesian tension and restraint — especially in rendering how brothers love on those subvocal "lower" frequencies Ralph Ellison famously tapped for Invisible Man. Like that novel and the Prince of Darkness's Kind of Blue, Jenkins's Moonlight revels in elegant shadowplay and illuminated shadowboxing.

Jenkins learned a lot about notes one didn't get to play in the years between Moonlight's slam-dunk and his much ballyhooed 2008 debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, a Sundance breakout that found him touted as the latest Next Big Directorial Thing in American indie circles. But Jenkins's proposed follow-up project prompted only crickets: a script titled Wonderland about a time-travel device powered by Stevie Wonder's music. Jenkins's casting for that aborted mission was as visionary as the notion itself — Solange Knowles and fellow Black-indie auteur Terence Nance (of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty renown), who would've played a couple sent back to the combustive Afrofuturism of 1972.

The route by which Jenkins came to make Moonlight for A24 after that disappointment found him popping out a couple of wistful and whimsical shorts and dallying with schemes for a big-budget cop movie. His friends Andrew Hevia and Lucas Leyva, of the Miami film collective, the Borscht Corporation, brought him the lyrical and mythopoeic plays of MacArthur recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney — a rocketing young creative who, like Jenkins, had artfully outmaneuvered the 'hood traps of Miami's Liberty City. For both artists, that included mothers fallen prey to the Reaganomic scourge of crack cocaine.

The future collaborators never crossed paths as youths, though they lived just blocks apart and attended the same elementary and junior high schools. The addiction-tormented mother character played by Naomie Harris in Moonlight is a hybrid figure: McCraney's mom perished from HIV-related complications; Jenkins's survived (and, according to him, plans to see the film only when she's ready).

Jenkins on set with Jaden Piner (left) and Alex Hibbert as the young Kevin and “Little” ChironEXPAND
Jenkins on set with Jaden Piner (left) and Alex Hibbert as the young Kevin and “Little” Chiron
Courtesy of A24 / David Bornfriend

Jenkins's swan dive into the open wound of confessional family drama places him on new narrative ground; McCraney's plays thrash around there with seductive, metaphoric relish. The play on which Moonlight the film is based is an early McCraney effort that went unproduced for twelve years. In the interim, the playwright became one of the most frequently produced young dramatists in the nation.

McCraney self-identifies as gay, Jenkins as straight. The former was a grade-school Drama Club draftee whose résumé includes work with Peter Brook and a degree from the Yale School of Drama. Jenkins once had NFL gridiron dreams that derailed into English-major pragmatism.

Filmmaking is a discipline whose adoption Jenkins attributes to boredom and a gaffe in his elective's program. It almost seems cinema discovered him instead of the other way around. Asked when he first caught the storytelling bug, Jenkins is quick to confess, "Tarell was the one who did drama class, which is why he didn't go to the high school depicted in the film, where I went. The arts never occurred to me; I didn't really think about doing anything with filmmaking or writing until I was at Florida State. I went to school to become a high school English teacher, but didn't do much reading when I was coming up. People don't think of Miami as an outdoorsy place, but I just remember being outside playing all the time. Miami is absolutely gorgeous — a rough place overflowing with beauty. Great art has that quality of coming from dire places full of darkness that can't be approached with saccharine methods. Moonlight is our attempt to pay respects to Miami's ability to create people like Tarell, myself, and Robert Battle of the Alvin Ailey company."

How Jenkins became an arthouse director was partly by default, and partly by deciding to be a late-blooming contrarian among classmates with more Spielbergian ambitions. "In the film program I got into, there were a lot of kids doing interesting work, but it was all in the same kind of voice. Nothing wrong with making more Hollywood fare, but everybody was making films that looked exactly like what they were watching. Because I was starting from scratch, I decided to take my cues from elsewhere, which pretty much meant films from outside American borders. The other thing was that all of the American films were always checked out of the film library, so I decided to work with what was there. French New Wave and Asian New Wave: Godard's Breathless, Claire Denis's Beau Travail, Wong Kar-wai's Chunking Express. Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times definitely influenced the three-part structure of Moonlight."

Not until he graduated was Jenkins exposed to the Black indie pioneers of the UCLA group, now monikered into legend as "The L.A. Rebellion," after scholar Clyde Taylor's coinage: Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Billy Woodberry, Larry Clark. Only after college, Jenkins confesses, did he become curious about the canon beyond Spike Lee.

"The one filmmaker I did grow up seeing was Spike. Spike was everything. Everybody went to see School Daze and Do the Right Thing and, of course later, John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, the Hughes brothers' Menace to Society. That's what Black cinema was to me until I got out and started wondering where Spike had taken his cues from. That's when I got exposed to this whole other world of filmmakers."

Of the current zeitgeist moment in Black film production, Jenkins is practically giddy. "I think this is an amazing time to be a Black artist, not just for the reception of the work, but because I didn't have to look far to find other Black artists to take inspiration from, or to take counsel from. In that way we are working informally together towards — I don't want to say for common goal — but we're all adding to the complexity of what it means to be a Black person in America, a Black person in the world. It just feels right to be a part of it."

Those membership privileges proved essential in advancing the locked version of Moonlight to prominent festival screens like Toronto's. "I wanted to have a rough cut of the screening right after I moved to Los Angeles, and was trying to find folks to offer a sharp perspective. Within eighteen hours I had Terence Nance, Justin Simien, Kahlil Joseph, Radha Blank, Ryan Coogler — who came down from the Bay while he was working on his Black Panther script — and several other young directors. All these people just showed up on a free afternoon to give me feedback."

Jenkins gives Lee his due for having built the present generation's filmmaking foundation. "Because Black independent cinema is very strong right now, it makes me think of the burden Spike took on, carrying the torch for everybody, how he carried that weight. Because of what he did, none of us now has to speak for the entirety of the experience. We can all speak in very individual ways."

In conversing with Jenkins about the making of Moonlight, you realize how off the scale his emotional IQ is for an American male of any stripe. That grasp of how to create seismic soulful moments is a marked quality of the class-fraught exchanges between Medicine for Melancholy's hipster outsiders. The director's tendency to flip social outliers into onscreen insiders was already intact in his college short My Josephine, a project narrated almost entirely in Arabic by its Middle Eastern husband-and-wife laundromat owners.

"I went to school in Tallahassee, Florida, and it's different from going to school in New York, where you have the whole city as a backdrop. Down in Tallahassee, you have to work to make the background interesting. 9-11 had happened, and it was on my mind as something I wanted to make a film about, in Florida. Through watching all those foreign films, especially as someone who didn't speak any foreign language or know any foreign people, I got opened up to the possibility of language in cinema. At the time, people were saying being a Muslim or an Arab was 'the new Black.' So I decided to take my experience of feeling like an 'other' as a Black man in the South, and use that as a way to empathize with my characters. That's where I discovered that there was a different way to approach the form, and it all came together in that short, which is kind of out there."

Jenkins (right) directs Moonlig ht’s Mahershala Ali in Miami last year.
Jenkins (right) directs Moonlig ht’s Mahershala Ali in Miami last year.
A24 / Photo by David Bornfriend

Black males are American cinema's perennial outsiders and antiheroes, as well as its most stereotypically depicted ones. This gives Jenkins's generation the grand opportunity to refresh viewers' eyes and our sense of hackneyed masculine conventions. Moonlight's powers of seduction repeatedly derive from the heartbreak of placing us behind the mask of its brother-men's hyper-machismo. The paternal relationship between Mahershala Ali's drug dealer, Juan, and young Alex Hibbert's urban castaway, Little, undoes decades of the cliché and complacency traded on by audiences and filmmakers alike.

"It's not like we're trying to subvert audience expectations, but as a filmmaker it's not hard to anticipate audience assumptions," Jenkins says. "These characters draw on people Tarell and I knew, and so we knew we were going to defy those assumptions. I tip my hat to the cast for carrying those intentions through with their bodies. They make a formal critique of those expectations with their bodies in the film."

Moonlight leapfrogs in time across central character Chiron's evolution, from bullied moppet to enraged teen to outlaw adult, in a way that comes off as remarkably seamless. It's a quality made even more striking when Jenkins reveals that the three actors who perform those journeys never met one another, nor saw each other's work in the role, until the Toronto International Film Festival, in September, almost a year after filming. It's another of those Miles Davis–like gambits that Jenkins deployed to draw something unique out of his players.

"They didn't cross paths until Toronto because I felt that, at each chapter, Chiron had been so affected by the outside world that he'd become a different person. So we made sure when we cast the guys that they all had that same feeling, that same heaviness in their shoulders and in their eyes. They all knew the full scope of the film, but I didn't want them to shoulder the burden of bringing the other actors' performance into their performance.

"I let all the actors know what the deal was in the beginning — that so much of the dramatic currency wasn't going to be in the dialogue. That a lot of it was going to be in their reactions, and how they processed things.

"I wanted the audience to feel the externalization of this interior voice as it played out on their faces. The script's about a hundred pages, and the running time of the film is about 105 minutes. A lot of that is taken up by the moment between the lines, the spaces between the beats. I told them all to take as much time as they needed to process things, and if you needed more time to process, then you go ahead and take that moment. Because the camera is just going to roll. The more seasoned actors, Mahershala, Naomie Harris, André Holland, all relished the freedom to actually be human on camera, as opposed to being this thing that has to follow coordinates and hit this or that mark at a particular time."

As always with serious productions where the youngest member must simultaneously supply innocence and gravitas, Hibbert steals the show when it comes to generating empathy.

"The casting process took time because I wanted the younger actors to be from Miami. Over the course of about fourteen to sixteen months, I'd go down with my producer and we'd have open casting calls at community centers. We just felt like we were going to see every kid down there until we found the right ones. But we were actually down to the wire, about a month out, when we finally found Alex Hibbert. I don't mean this as a joke, but he's a little dude who acts like an old man. He just has this old soul, and I could feel it when he walked into the room. Then you switch on the craft hat and he could take direction. He could take a very simple direction and give a very complex performance. Without any experience or training, he could externalize and modulate on a dime, emote the difference and the nuance between playing not-so-sad and not-so-happy. I thought, here's a person with a real raw cord that we can work with. I knew I was going to learn things about the character through him."

We straight-up told Jenkins that his choice of the British Harris for the addicted mother threw us for a loop, even though she's an actor we've found spectacularly credible in just about everything else she's done since 28 Days Later. British portrayals of Black Americans frequently come off to this viewer as less than embodied, given our phenotypically distinct and ethnographic ways of carrying the weight of American history, no matter how good the dialogue coach. But Jenkins felt Harris had the skill set necessary for the only character seen in all three sections, and found that Harris's Jamaican background corresponded with Hibbert's own in ways that made her casting seem less of a stretch. All the same, we give Jenkins props for even Going There in telling the story of one's parent — nearly a taboo among African-American storytellers in all disciplines.

"I had a conversation with myself about that. 'Why would you censor that part of yourself, since that character is clearly your mom?' A person who shaped who I am as a person, same as Tarell's mother affected him. That said, directing those scenes was the hardest thing I've ever done. I don't know what I'm going to do from here, but it'll be hard to top that in terms of difficulty on set. But it had to be done, because to omit that character would have been caving to shame about that part of my biography. And that just wouldn't be acceptable."

How Barry Jenkins Turned the Misery and Beauty of the Queer Black Experience Into the Year's Best Movie
Jeff Lipsky

The simplest tag you can put on Moonlight is that it's a queer coming-of-age story set in a Negroidal Southern galaxy far, far away from the places it's received world-cinema accolades from. Black and queer romantic feature films are no staple of the canon noted above, though mention should be made here of the work of Bill Gunn, Marlon Riggs, Isaac Julien, and Michelle Parkerson in establishing a resolute queer presence in Black indie history. Still, Moonlight's mass-culture prominence in the now is nothing short of a real breakthrough.

"After having many conversations with Tarell, my goal was to present very authentic representations of Black queerness. Because if these characters didn't make it to the screen in ways that rang true, I felt like it would do more harm than good. When you insert the presence of these kinds of characters into a film, their absence elsewhere becomes heightened. Yet in my naïveté I didn't realize what we were doing was important. A lot of my conversations with Tarell were about trust, because I felt like he was blessing me in trusting me with his characters.

"We're talking about the movie intellectually now, but he and I talked a lot about how the movie was going to work emotionally. Then it became about trying to find the simplest gestures to carry this intimacy and tenderness amongst men."

Talking about the film's narrative resolution requires a bit of a spoiler alert. Moonlight's denouement has occasioned a fair amount of debate among even gaga viewers, so consider yourself warned. For his part, Jenkins is sanguine and wry about those reports, while appreciative of the social effect the film has already engendered.

"I get a ton of messages on Facebook and Instagram from young Black men, 95 percent of which say what Hilton Als said in his New Yorker story — that he never thought he'd see himself represented onscreen. That means the world to me, because I know what it's like to feel voiceless and unseen. When we don't see images outside of ourselves, we feel invisible. So now there are all these young men who feel like they are finally being seen."

With respect to the debate over the ending, Jenkins says, "I try to stay out of it, because I'd much rather people who lived the experience talk about it amongst themselves. The physical consummation of the 'relationship' — which I'll put in air-quotes — between Kevin and Chiron that you see onscreen is in keeping with the pace of the evolution of that character in the last thirty minutes. Something which takes place, more or less, in real time. It was what he seemed prepared to accept, at that point, from my perspective." Then, with what seems like a mock pearl-clutching grin, Jenkins adds, "But, man, Facebook is the place to go if you want to find some riveting, electrifying conversations about the ending."

In the end, in shaping the awkward, haunted choices that give Moonlight's Chiron-narrative closure, Jenkins submitted to his least sentimental artistic instincts.

"The way the released film depicts that last act is the way it was scripted. We did shoot and then withhold some things, though. You make a movie three times: when you write it, when you direct it, and when you edit it. As you edit stuff away, the film reveals itself more and more, and the actors get to reveal who the characters actually are, as opposed to who I think they are. As a director, all I can do is to keep feeling what the characters are telling me. And I think the ending we have is true to the experience of the characters, not myself. Because I love happy endings, and even obviously happy endings. But I can't force one upon my characters."


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