Rhapsody in blue: Barry Jenkins on Moonlight

Barry Jenkins discusses Moonlight, his by turns epic and intimate modern classic about a young gay man growing up against a backdrop of poverty, violence and drugs in Miami, in this conversation first published in our March 2017 issue.

Moonlight (2016)

▶︎ Moonlight is available on digital platforms, Blu-ray and DVD.

You stand, wrapped in that strange communal spell during the thunderous ovation, as the memory of cinema floods back. Not the explosive, momentarily gratifying, empty-bellied franchise juggernaut that has run rough-shod across the plains of American cinema in recent decades. No, the memory of a medium that lovingly takes a small life and makes the experience of that life epic.

In Moonlight we watch as a vulnerable young boy nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert) becomes an adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and then finally a man, now known as Black (Trevante Rhodes), against the wilds of a poor black community in Miami.

This interview was originally published in our March 2017 issue

Chiron – his given name – is an outcast, abandoned by a drug-addled mother (Naomie Harris) and a father whose presence isn’t even to be expected. He is terrorised by a culture of cruel and aggressive hyper-masculinity embodied by nemesis Terrel (Patrick Decile).

So far, so ubiquitous, you might think, and yet this is a story about love – or the dream of love that can be found even in the midst of a nightmare. First, there is local drug kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe), whose warm, ordered home is a shelter from the horrors of Chiron’s own. Then there is Kevin, his only friend. Chiron grows to love him deeply but the thwarted desire he feels leads to a startling shift in identity.

At some point, you are surprised that this is the first time you have seen a cinematic portrayal of the lonely path many black gay men have walked. You realise with greater surprise that you have rarely seen young black men weep on screen as you do so often in this film. Perhaps the closest cinema has come to creating a vulnerable young black male hero is the Pepto-Bismol-swilling Strike in Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995).

On first viewing, Moonlight hypnotises. Set in Miami, to the visual and sonic echoes of the ocean, this coming-of-age odyssey plays out within a landscape of deeply protected emotions. On second viewing, you have to fight the seduction to study the craft.

From the first prowling single take, reminiscent of the opening of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), to the isolating wide-angle shots butting up against extreme close-ups, colour-saturated tableaux and an immersive soundscape, this is a film designed to speak to your subconscious.

Moonlight is divided into three chapters, each charting a period in one man’s life. Each section is introduced by a rear-view shot of the man’s tender, unguarded nape – no black men trapped in a pornographic, full-frontal, low-angled view here. The performances by Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes, all newcomers, are deeply humanising. Harris’s portrayal of Chiron’s mother and Monáe’s Teresa give vivid life to characters who could otherwise be sidelined.

Alex Hibbert as ‘Little’ in Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight’s director Barry Jenkins first broke through in 2008 with the smart, stylish Medicine for Melancholy. The film picked up an Independent Spirit Award, but Jenkins then vanished. In certain circles, especially those hungering for complex cinematic depictions of black life, Jenkins’s name would be whispered reverently: “Whatever happened to Barry Jenkins?”

So his reappearance with Moonlight, partnering with the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney on an adaptation of the latter’s semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, drew immediate attention. It was a meeting of souls, Jenkins says, especially when he discovered that both he and McCraney had grown up in the same part of Miami, where the film is set.

Little did Jenkins know how personal this project was to become or how acclaimed it would be – the film went on to pick up a Best Picture Golden Globe, as well as eight Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Ali and Best Supporting Actress for Harris) and four Bafta nominations. [It would famously win the Best Picture award, beating La La Land in high-drama circumstances; Ali would also win Best Supporting Actor, and it took the Best Adapted Screenplay Award for Jenkins and McCraney.]

Moonlight’s power is proof that, over the past eight years, Jenkins’s style had been developing. At a recent Film Society of Lincoln Center season in New York, he cited his chief influences as Claire Denis, Oshima Nagisa, Wong Kar Wai, Carlos Reygadas and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Charles Burnett is the only American director on his list – a filmmaker also heavily influenced by work from outside the American tradition.

A month or so after seeing Moonlight at its premiere in Toronto in September 2016, where it was met with the awed hush that falls when something undeniably important has happened, I spoke to Jenkins for the first of two interviews. This was on the day of the BFI’s Black Star Symposium, held to mark the launch of the BFI’s major project in celebration of black film stars. At the time Moonlight’s spell was widening: the film had not yet been released in the US but the buzz was growing louder.

Barry JenkinsRakeem Cunningham

This film is proving to be deeply resonant to so many of us. How are you feeling about the film’s reception so far?

So many have had a positive reaction, which you never anticipate. Structurally it’s a challenging film. What I did anticipate was that the performers are just so alive and honest and authentic that you couldn’t watch this film and not see these people. There was no way. But the fact that they’ve watched with such thoughtful empathy… it’s been shocking.

Because this story is partly about the way I grew up. It’s something I don’t talk about very often, and now I’m talking about it quite a bit. So if anything has changed, it’s that I’m having to be honest with myself about how much of me is in this film and how much of me has not been in my past work. That may be the difference in the response.

Were you aware of how personal this film was when you were writing it?

No, I wasn’t. I thought this story was more about Tarell’s life growing up with his mom, but I think now, I’ve fully placed myself in Tarell’s shoes through this character Little/Chiron, which is beautiful in a way. I’ve always hid myself behind my art. In this one there is nowhere to hide.

At what moment did you realise this was your story?

While I was filming. It was when Naomie Harris playing Paula, the mother, walks in and she speaks like my mom, she looks like my mom, she is my mom. Working with her I realised very quickly, “Oh shit, this is me.”

What was your initial response to that discovery?

Firstly, Naomie was so gracious in what she was willing to do. There was a place where I felt the character needed to go, but we had such little time due to visa issues [as she is a British citizen], which curtailed her time. I thought it would be an arduous task to get to that place but she came prepared to go right there. She just showed up and was ready to go. I’d gotten very accustomed to being, not detached, but very workmanlike.

Film is crafting, whereas this was like therapy. Naomie Harris is giving me therapy right now and I’m thinking, “Oh, I have to direct her. Oh, I have to work. I have to put the camera here, but holy shit, this hurts.”

Alex Hibbert as ‘Little’ in Moonlight

After having seen the film, this doesn’t surprise me. There’s such an intimacy in the work. Did this new knowledge affect your approach?

It did, absolutely. In the very first story – which recurs in the third – there’s this moment where Little and Paula are standing in this hallway and we just shot-reverse-shot, underscored in silence. They look at each other and then he looks away and walks off.

That’s not in the script. That was something I felt like I had to do because, once Naomie showed up, I literally saw myself as that kid and Paula as my mom. The whole process of making the movie was about addressing this chasm between myself and my actual mom that has been so difficult to traverse. Unconsciously, I wanted a visual representation of that.

Naomie’s so great because I tell her we’re going to do this thing that’s not in the script. “I need you to yell right into the camera,” I say, and she says, “Yes, I can do it.” 

Also I have trouble sleeping so, somewhere in the film, I wanted to visually represent a nightmare that this character needs to wake up from. I had the idea to place the yell at 24 frames per second at the top of the third story, which finally helped tie the three stories together. 

Ashton Sanders as Chiron in Moonlight

There’s a strong feeling throughout the film that we’re drifting into the dreams of these characters…

When I first read Tarell’s play, I told him it was like he took a memory of my memories and placed them into this fever dream. I’m glad visually, that’s what the translation became. I’ve always tried to find a way to use the aesthetics of filmmaking to tap into the subconscious. That’s the power of cinema. 

However, there is the machinery of making a film. It can be very arduous and stilted. It can stunt the relay of feelings and emotions. I went to film school with Wes Ball [director of Maze Runner] and David Robert Mitchell [director of It Follows] and I knew nothing about cinema.

Back then I didn’t even know you needed light to expose film. I was awful. But one of our professors told me, “You’re only not cutting it because you don’t have the physical tools to translate your voice.” So I took a year off and took a photography class. I began making my own 35mm prints in the lab. I started watching as much arthouse cinema as I could because everybody else was watching pretty much all Hollywood.

I’ve always tried to find a way to use the aesthetics of filmmaking to tap into the subconscious.

I got a subscription to Sight & Sound because I wanted to read the best film criticism in the world, to see what deep thinkers of cinema were responding to. In that pot-pourri, I got to a place where the machinations of the process weren’t going to hinder the translation of the voice.

The way that bears itself out is that now if I’m on a set and I’m speaking to an actor of Naomie Harris’s quality, I’m not going to waste what she gives me. When I ask her to yell, I’m going to shoot it at 48 frames because I know that in post-production we might want to use that to translate that feeling of the subconscious rising to the surface.

There seems to be a very strong lineage in your work from the LA Rebellion school [the group of mainly black independent film and video artists that formed at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s and 80s, including figures such as Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry and Haile Gerima]. Those filmmakers also told specifically located, interior stories using this element of dream and subconscious. Is that something you connect with?

Absolutely. Formatively, there were some things that I watched in a very aggressive way, the more esoteric work of the LA Rebellion in particular, like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep [1978], being amongst that work. That vibed more with what I thought was going to be my filmmaking voice.

James Laxton – the cinematographer I’ve worked with for 15 years – and I didn’t want to make a neorealist or miserable version of this character’s story. We wanted the imagery to rise from the character so these portraits pop up every now and then when we felt the character was dislocated from him or herself. We wanted the audience to feel what the character was feeling in that moment.

I love the work James did on the film. The characters’ skin just looks so radiant. My memory of growing up and running around with all my peers is that we had this glistening skin, and he captures that. Also, the way the camera moves is very attached to the way the character is moving or not moving.

Ashton Sanders as Chiron in Moonlight

What’s your process of working with James? 

The way I write the script is very clear. I’m religious about shot-listing, but then once that’s done I’ll bring James in and together we’ll refine it. When we go out, the shot-list is there but it’s not the law. We work very fluently together, but I have a very clear picture of what I’m going to do. If a certain lens is on, if a certain light is a certain place, I know what he’s doing, and we figure it out.

I interviewed Julie Dash recently and she said she came to directing by mastering the camera equipment first, similar to you. 

That’s because the camera, unfortunately or fortunately, is the vessel of the voice. Unless you’re Steven Soderbergh, the director is not handling the camera, so you need to be aware of what the person who’s handling the camera is doing.

If the cameraman changes the f-stop [focal ratio], based on what he or she changes it to, I know exactly how the image is being altered. In this film, that was doubly important because sometimes where the focus is says so much about the mental state of the character.

One of the wonderful things about Moonlight and Medicine for Melancholy is that we get to know a place, a city intimately. In Moonlight it’s Miami. In Medicine, it’s San Francisco. Is place a big influence on you?

Big time. The first and last sound you hear in this movie is the sound of the ocean, because in Miami you’re surrounded by water and the horizon is infinite. That also says a lot about a character who is always surrounded in open space and yet feels so locked into himself.

We only had 90 minutes to shoot the scene where Juan teaches Little how to swim, because these storms are coming in from the horizon. So instead of this bucolic, golden scene, we have actor Mahershala Ali teaching our young actor Alex Hibbert how to swim as a fucking storm is rolling in.

Mahershala Ali as Juan and Alex Hibbert as ‘Little’ in Moonlight

Which is perfect for the story…

It’s perfect! James and I knew we wanted the camera to be in the water, because I wanted the film to be immersive and the audience to be in the water with the characters. So I told Ali, “Look, I’m sorry, but this is a baptism and I need you to teach this kid how to swim really fast.” 

What’s beautiful about that anecdote is that the film is essentially about the tender relationship between generations of black men – particularly between Juan and Little. So life is mirroring the art in this moment, especially as Ali is an experienced actor and Hibbert a newcomer. 

And both just being so delicate and kind and nurturing. Usually a black drug dealer is just a black drug dealer. He doesn’t have the space to be anything more. And the whole piece originates with Tarell’s actual friendship with a drug dealer who took him under his wing, in the neighbourhood that we grew up in, the same projects…

Moonlight’s final scene is extraordinarily potent. Without giving too much away, can you speak about that a little?

You know what I love about that? People keep referring to it as a scene and I think of it as a sequence, but it’s beautiful because it’s meant to feel like one moment.

It feels like that, for sure.

It’s interesting because that sequence is not in the source material. I don’t know if it got to a point where it was too much for Tarell, but it felt like he just stopped writing. The third story was just the two phone calls between Black and Kevin, but I thought we had to complete the journey these phone calls start.

We’ve seen him as a kid, we’ve seen him as a teenager, we got a taste of him as an adult and then the two longest shots of the film – he pulls up, he’s putting on his shirt, he’s walking, and we’re drifting and then the two characters look at each other. The whole film is working to earn the right for that awkwardness and that tension, that moment when a man slowly rises to the surface.

Trevante Rhodes as ‘Black’ in Moonlight

Sweet smell of success

By the time Jenkins and I met again, in December, Moonlight had risen. The film opened in the US on 14 October and quickly became one of the highest-grossing independent films of 2016, doubling its $5 million budget in a matter of weeks. It was also beginning to sweep the awards tables. Jenkins had a terrible cold. Success was proving to be a voracious taskmaster.

Last time we met, you spoke about being surprised how well the story had connected. What are your thoughts on the reception the film has had so far?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I have friends who have made really great films that very few people get to see, so I realise how fortunate we are. It’s been wonderful to see so many people – real, everyday people – get to see the film.

From the messages I get from them on Twitter and Instagram, these are people who never expect to see themselves in a film. So it’s been amazing to be a part of something that has given voice to voiceless characters.

Trevante Rhodes as ‘Black’ in Moonlight

Usually that’s an interesting issue with independent films. Often such films represent a broader demographic but, because of where the theatres are situated, they don’t reach that audience. How did the Moonlight release differ?

We started out in those arthouse theatres because that’s the usual way you platform-launch a film. But, wonderfully, the press coverage and our opening weekend box office was so strong that an awareness was created around the film.

The platform release worked to perfection in our case. We started in LA and New York, built up buzz, and people between LA and New York started to go, “Well, what is this movie?” The more they spoke, the wider we spread the film. That’s why the movie has done so well relative to its budget and its release. I mean if someone had told me this movie was going to make $10 million in its first five weeks, I would have said, “Not this film.” Even I was placing expectations on what the ceiling for the audience is. And that was a mistake on my part.

You’re also a programmer, who’s worked on the other side of the sector. So from that perspective, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the Moonlight experience? 

That I’m not meant to be in marketing! The wonderful thing I’ve learned is to keep making things with a very determined point of view. Clearly people respect that and respond to it.

The American box office right now is very tricky. There are some things that do really well and other things that don’t do well at all. Right now speciality films are performing very strongly. I have been part of discussions with Kenneth Lonergan, Damien Chazelle, Pablo Larraín, Jeff Nichols – all their movies are doing really well.

The audience just keep responding. I think it’s because these films are talking about some very real things – marginalised people living marginalised lives. The other thing that’s changed since I last saw you?

Ah yes. The election.

The film went out a few weeks before, but I noticed a change in the way people responded to it post-election. Even more people attended, some going to see the film for a second time, as though to remind themselves of the breadth of the American experience. I keep saying that I went eight years without making a film. Had I gone nine or ten years, Moonlight wouldn’t be here at this moment. 

Trevante Rhodes as ‘Black’ in Moonlight

You went eight years without making a film and now this one has turned a big corner for you. You’re obviously still in the midst of it, but what has success shifted for you so far?

Because I’m in it so much, not much yet. Every time a good thing happens, the voice of the film is carried that much further. I keep reminding myself that relatively few people have seen this film, compared to movies that make $500 million at the box office.

I went eight years without making a film. Had I gone nine or ten years, Moonlight wouldn’t be here at this moment. 

I feel mostly successful on set. The rest is results-oriented and I can’t manifest those kind of results. I try not to be tied to that because what if nobody decides to ever see this film again? I can’t let that change my perception of the work we did. 

When results do come though, does it affirm your filmmaking voice? 

It does make me feel like I should trust myself more. A healthy bit of self-doubt is very good for an artist and I will have no problem retaining that. The fact that it’s working for audiences, that is affirming, for sure.

Everybody involved took a risk. Naomie took a big risk, our financiers took a big risk, and I’m glad to see that so far the risk is paying off. Also I love [the writer] Michael Kimmelman’s idea about the importance of remaining an amateur. As an amateur you’re always discovering new things about yourself and your craft.

It might be too early to ask but have you got a sense of what questions or worlds you might explore next?

I’m not sure because things keep shifting. The better the film does, the more opportunities present themselves. I have aspirations as a storyteller for many different kinds of stories. Depending on what that story is will determine how much exploration I’m allowed to do in the next project.

I do think there’s something with Moonlight that very definitively states that this is the kind of filmmaker Barry Jenkins is, which is interesting because it’s an unorthodox film.

I don’t mind being stamped aesthetically as that kind of filmmaker but the next movie might take a whole different shape. I admire Steven Soderbergh, Alfonso Cuarón… Soderbergh has been able to explore so many forms and work at such a high level for such a long time while still coming down and experimenting. I’ll always be a filmmaker who wants to attempt to do things with as few resources as possible, because that’s where you derive the most freedom in craft, form, theme and story. 

André Holland as Kevin and Trevante Rhodes as ‘Black’ in Moonlight

Where do you go to for inspiration? 

Oh, it’s everywhere. Novels too. I love Colson Whitehead, Marilynne Robinson, Zadie Smith, James Baldwin. Usually when I read literature, I’m not reading it in a mercenary way, I’m reading to be a part of the culture, to be inspired.

Colson’s book [the 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, about two slaves in the antebellum South who escape from their plantation and head for the sanctuary of the North] was different. Right away I could see this massive eight-hour thing for TV.

You bought the rights?

Yes, we’re just packaging it now. It’s a great challenge. It is kind of cool that right now all over the globe there are these young black creatives who are just making this work. I even got an email from [the singer] Solange last night.

It’s different than in the days of Spike [Lee] because he had to shoulder the burden of the entirety of the black experience for everybody till the end of time. Right now, there are so many of us contributing to the diasporic representation of the culture of arts and letters that we can drill down to a very finite piece. We’re each a swatch on a quilt and we’re all just adding our different pieces and we’re all rooting for one another.

These works come as a response to a lack that we felt in the culture.

When we screened the rough cut for Moonlight for the first time, I emailed and texted anybody I could think of on 18 hours’ notice. [Artist and music video director] Kahlil Joseph was there, [An Oversimplification of Her Beauty director] Terence Nance, [Dear White People director] Justin Simien.

It was just amazing. We also had an outdoor screening in the back yard of Kahlil Joseph’s Underground Museum the day after the election. Three hundred people, side by side, sitting on the grass to watch this movie. It was unreal, unreal.

There is this very particular moment happening in the United States right now – a burgeoning of young black creativity. How do you feel positioned within that? Do you feel like it’s a movement that you’re part of, a definer, a springboard?

Things are often framed as a reflection of or as a reaction to. For example all these movies are framed as a reaction to #Oscarssowhite, which doesn’t make any sense because it takes so long to make a film.

These works come as a response to a lack that we felt in the culture. We don’t have meetings but we do watch each other’s work and link up on social media. I ended up directing an episode of Dear White People, because showrunner Justin Simien came to see the rough cut of Moonlight and offered me an episode. We feel like we’re informally part of something together.

And is it important that that something is informal? 

Yes, because that way we have the freedom to be ourselves.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy