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'Moonlight' director Barry Jenkins on his think piece-worthy film

'Moonlight' director Barry Jenkins on his think piece-worthy film
Photograph: Courtesy A24

Moonlight, the exhilarating new film about a young gay African-American man named Chiron searching for his identity across three different periods of his life, recently opened in New York and Los Angeles to the highest per-screen-average box office numbers of 2016. Writer and director Barry Jenkins' second feature will expand to more theaters in the coming weeks and seems like a lock for year-end critics awards and perhaps even Oscar glory. We sat down with Jenkins after a screening of Moonlight at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Moonlight shows how identity intersects with masculinity, sexuality, race and class. Do you think there’s pressure on young men within the black community to act “hard” and is that what prevents Chiron from coming out?
Yeah, I think it’s the case but I don’t think it’s something that is just born of the black community. I think it’s a response to the outside stimuli, the world around the black community and this need for black men to sort of protect themselves and their families and the community from the world at large. Because there are a lot of assumptions that come with blackness. When the world sees a black man walking down the street they assume this or that about him. I think the movie is inherently intersectional but I think the idea with casting three different actors to play Chiron is the notion that when all these assumptions, all these expectations, are constantly projected at a person, it’s hard to self-identify. Because your identity starts to be derived from your reaction to all these things projected on you. So I don’t think it’s born purely within the black community. I think that, in the history of this country, black folks have had to create this network, this sort of shield, just to find a space to be. But it’s funny because I never think of the film as being this intellectual; Chiron is a kid from a particular block with a particular mom going through a particular ordeal. And then I think it lends itself to this kind of unpacking. 

Now that it’s out, you’re kind of being a co-critic and analyzing it.
Exactly, it becomes a whole different thing. It’s funny you said “co-critic” because I think that I am there to respond, react and help deepen some of the critique and commentary, but I feel like I’m no different from the audience. Now I’m watching it too. And we’re all having very nuanced and varied reactions to the same stimulus. 

And maybe your feelings about why you did certain things have changed now that you’re looking at it in retrospect?
Yeah. People are really smart and they bring their own personal experience to the experience of the characters. Sometimes you do see things—not that you see them for the first time, but you see them in a different light. You see them through someone else’s gaze, which is always really interesting. But I sat down and had a really hard talk with myself before the first Telluride screening so that I could at least have a solid memory of what I felt I had done, what I felt it was about.

Before you heard feedback from everybody?
Yeah. The more I sat with the film the more I realized it lends itself to “think pieces,” which is sort of a millennial term right now. “It’s a think-piece movie!” But it wasn’t made with think pieces in mind.

I’ll go out on a limb here. A film it reminded me of was Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There.
Oh yeah, it’s awesome. Oh man, thank God that just came up because that would’ve been a reference and I try to not have something that can so easily become a 1:1, you know? I mean we kind of do the same thing he does in a certain way.

I was surprised to find myself thinking about it, actually.
First time that’s ever come up, for sure.

When a character is played by multiple actors I often find it hard to suspend my disbelief because the actors never look exactly alike and I have a hard time believing it’s the same character. But with I’m Not There and your film, the discrepancy works to their advantage.
Exactly. But in I’m Not There, I think what Todd was doing—and I don’t know him personally so I can’t really speak for him—but I think there were so many facets of Dylan’s persona, of the character he created, that he literally is a different character each time a different actor embodies him. I think in our film we’re trying to say, “No, he’s the same character but the world has shaped him so much that now he’s become a different person.” I think, intellectually, what Todd was doing is very different than, intellectually, what we were trying to do but they end up at the same place. Yeah, I’m so damn glad that nobody reminded me that we were doing kind of the same thing because I would’ve had a hard time: “Hey, what if a woman plays him in the third chapter?” It would be the same film!

The film was based on an unproduced play. What was it about the play that spoke to you? 
Well, it wasn’t fully a play. Tarell [McCraney] wrote it here in Chicago when he was an undergrad at DePaul. He was applying to Yale for grad school and he had to submit a work sample. He wrote three things, one of which was this. I think it was never going to be done on the stage. There was something very visual and screen-language about it, even though I also wouldn’t fully call it a screenplay. It was somewhere between the stage and the screen. The character that Naomie Harris plays is sort of a composite of my mom and Tarell’s mom. Both our moms went through that sort of ordeal with addiction. Very few people knew that aspect of my biography, but one of those people just happened to also know Tarell. It was sent to me with this idea that there’s something in this that’s very much about you and you should read this. When I did, I was struck by how he knew some of the things he knew—like what it’s like to be a child losing your mother to addiction—but also the way he gave voice to Miami I thought was really dynamic. We realized after we started communicating that our lives were very, very similar—with this one distinction of sexuality.

The use of locations is very impressive. We see a side of Miami that’s never been portrayed on screen before. It’s a rough neighborhood but also very beautiful.
Gorgeous, no, gorgeous. It’s weird being a child growing up surrounded by such beauty and yet things are so hard. Tarell can talk about this much more eloquently than I can. He describes Miami as "a beautiful nightmare." It is the strangest thing to know and have access to such sweeping, organic, natural beauty and yet be surrounded by rampant poverty. The distance between those two worlds, physically, is very short—but I think, systemically, is very, very, very far.

The musical score is also the opposite of what we might expect to hear in a film taking place in this milieu. It’s orchestral and very lush.
My filmmaking voice is, I guess I would say, very arthouse, only because the first film festival I ever went to was the Telluride Film Festival back in 2002. And I’ve been there ever since. To me, that’s what cinema is. It’s not necessarily the multiplex, although as a kid I watched those films as well. When I got into filmmaking it was this kind of work; I always loved the cinema of Claire Denis. She uses score liberally in her films—with the Tindersticks—although you think of her as this austere, arthouse filmmaker. That’s my filmmaking voice. My personal voice is this place that I’m from. It felt organic to me to fuse those two things: the idea of an orchestral score being matched to a story of a kid growing up in Liberty City. It wasn’t extraordinary to me. It’s just the way those two voices came together. 

But there’s also hip-hop in the film and Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurrucucú Paloma."
Exactly, an overt homage to Happy Together by Wong Kar-Wai, which I love. I love that we had the opportunity to do that because here’s this film about these two men from Hong Kong living in Argentina that was made in 1997, and here I have this film about these two black men from the 'hood. They’re worlds apart and yet they’re feeling the same things. So for 30 seconds I wanted to express “this is the same thing.”

And you use it during the road trip portion of the film, which makes the connection explicit.
Exactly. The world isn’t that big. It’s actually quite small. We speak different languages but we feel the same things. But with the hip-hop music, there’s this thing called “chopped and screwed.” You take the music, you break it, you bend it, you slow it down. The voices get lower, the lyrics come at you at a slower pace. What we did was, as the film goes on and the hip-hop gets more chopped and screwed, the character becomes more muscular, the orchestra becomes chopped and screwed also. We’re bending oboes, we’re bending cellos, we’re bending violins. We’re pitching them way down and creating the same kind of rumble with a chamber orchestra that you get from a car blasting hip-hop going down the alley. 

I’d like to talk about the visual style. I was impressed by your command of film form. This is such a confidently made film and the camera movement is very elaborate. Do you think about visual style when you’re writing?
Absolutely. With this film it was great because I knew the locations. I could really see it, which is always a plus. Normally, you’re shot-listing against air and then you find locations and you adjust. We did some of that but because we went back home, I knew where we were going to end up. There’s some very heavy subject matter in this film; normally, you’d have this very documentary-style, 100% handheld, Neorealist kind of thing. But when the piece first came to me, what I said to Tarell was: “This feels like a fever dream.” And so I wanted to root the audience visually in the perspective of Chiron. Once the director of photography, James Laxton, and I really made a commitment to that, it kind of freed us to do certain things that wouldn’t normally fit this sort of “coming of age." There were periods where we were allowed to, we felt like, swirl the room. When I say “the room,” I mean the audience in the auditorium. And they’re going to be with it because at this point they’ll know: we’re seeing this because Chiron is feeling it.

There’s a lyricism to it and an elegance.
Yeah, and we tried to not be too overt or heavy handed with it. The one thing I did want—because my first film, Medicine for Melancholy, is very desaturated, and my memory of Miami is of a very colorful, rich, saturated place where the skin shines—I told James, “You have license to make the skin shine. And let’s lean into the colors.” It was a very fluid process. I’d say 75% of the film we planned out and we knew. And the other 25%, that was like, “Go with God.” The swimming scene? It was like, “Go with God."

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