Director Barry Jenkins, Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney & The Men Of ‘Moonlight’ Talk Redefining Black Male Identity In Film Narratives
Coming of age stories are plentiful, with the inner city genre of the ‘90s, films like “Menace II Society” and “Boyz N the Hood” thrust the urban Black male narrative onto the big screen. This era of filmmaking also ushered in some Black female narratives, stories like “Just Another Girl On The I.R.T” and “Eve’s Bayou” and more recently, Dee Rees’ “Pariah” also made waves in the cinema landscape. However, Barry Jenkins' “Moonlight” is once in a lifetime. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stunning play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the film is a riveting masterpiece on Black queer identity, hyper-masculinity, and compassion. It’s a film that speaks more loudly in its silences than the most overpacked and overblown action films.
Recently, I sat down with Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney and the film’s stars Trevante Rhodes and André Holland. We spoke about the filmmaking process, Black male intimacy and what they want the film to say.
You can read Shadow and Act’s review on “Moonlight” here.
Why was it so important to get this narrative out?
Barry Jenkins: When I read “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” I just fell in love with the characters and the story. What Tarell did, which was shocking to me at first, was he took this world, this neighborhood where we grew up, and he just put it up there. I had never experienced anyone who had done that for this specific place. I was just struck at how brave it was to do some of those things; especially with some of the specific characters.
Tarell, why did you write this piece in the first place?
Tarell Alvin McCraney: It’s difficult to narrow down why I wrote it in a way that feels generous to the process of it. It was really self-serving. There was no real representation of myself to see, and to purge ideas on and to look at for models of. I was trying to figure out my manhood, my childhood, and my personhood. I was the son of a crack-addict who had just died from AIDS-related complications, but at the same time, I was on the precipice of a life-changing moment. I wasn’t very intimate. I had never had an intimate relationship by then, and I couldn’t quite figure out what was happening, why these cycles were happening in my life; why I was still kind of reticent even though I was in performing arts. I was very shy. I didn’t go out to clubs, I was twenty-two years old, and I still wasn’t going to keggers. But, I really wanted to look at the circumstances that made my life and then try to figure out what I would have been like if I’d turned left instead of right. What would have happened if I decided to take that next move in that other direction, what would life look like? Again, that was the impotence for it, but I didn’t know even what I was chasing, I just wanted to put those thoughts down. So, I took the stories and actual happenings of me; being taught to ride a bike by a drug dealer, being taught to swim, being nourished and talked to and treating like a human being by this person. And then, the aspects of growing up with an increasingly addicted mother and being in a neighborhood surrounded by people who felt the need to ostracize and bully; but bully is not even a word; it should really be called terrorizing. There was sometimes imminent danger for people that were different, and I wanted to understand what it was about my interactions that made me the recalcitrant person that I could be. I never expected it to be a play. I never expected it to be anything except for memories put down in a very visual way. I didn’t know that it had a visual life and that the stage would support it, but then I actually wrote plays and I thought, “This is for the stage. “
How much is the script is autobiographical, Tarell?
TAM: I would say about two-thirds.
BJ: There are moments in this film that are autobiographical for Tarrell, and there are less, but there are also moments that are autobiographical for me. What I love is that when you watch the film, you can’t even tell. André and Trevante, the film is so intersectional in terms of race, sexuality, and socio-economics. How do you prepare for your roles?
André Holland: For me, it was making sure that I understood what the place was. So I went down to Miami a couple of weeks early and spent some time in the housing projects that the story largely takes place in. I just tried to figure out the accent, tried to figure out how these people dress. I listened to a lot of music. Also, Tarell’s plays which I’ve read and worked on, a lot of them deal with the same sort of issues of identity, community, sexuality, and masculinity. So, being really familiar with his plays helped me to prepare a lot. I also have my “actor process.” I ask myself a lot of questions, and then I try to find answers to those questions. Going into this film the big thing for me was shame and guilt. I felt like those things were really driving Kevin. That moment in the middle chapter when he hurts Chiron, I think he’s been living with the guilt of that for a long, long time. I think when he shows up again, he’s trying to get to the bottom of that. It’s “Is there a way for us to fix that? It’s “Are you OK?” It’s “Can you come out and join me in a more peaceful authentic place?”
Regarding the space that is Liberty City, Miami in the 1980s, what work did you have to do to recreate that space and feeling?
BJ: No work. I don’t like to talk about time stamps; 1987 or 1989 or things like that. But that place feels to me, largely the same as it did when I grew up. It’s part of the permanence of whatever is the spiritual and cultural gumbo that’s in the air. To be honest, when I read the script that’s what it was. I thought, “This feels like my childhood, but it also feels like now.” It felt like a very contemporary story or how stories are rooted in our past. So we didn’t have to do a lot to augment Liberty City to make it feel like the place where we grew up. It literally is the place where we grew up, and it hasn’t changed a ton. People who have watched the film talk about the imagery, but I didn’t do much. The walls are painted that color, and they have been since I was a kid. One of the things that I’m really proud of in response to the film is the idea of it being timeless despite the fact that the character is aging, so obviously time is passing. I think that what he’s going through because it represents so much of what we all go through creates a sense of timelessness.
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