Director Barry Jenkins, Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney & the Men of ‘Moonlight’ Talk Redefining Black Male Identity in Film Narratives

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April 20th 2017

"MOONLIGHT" Cast & Crew Hometown Premiere in Miami at Colony Theater on October 15, 2016 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images) MOONLIGHT Cast & Crew Hometown Premiere in Miami at on Oct. 15, 2016 (Photo: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images)

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 Jenkin’s “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 impetus 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.

Let’s talk about the use of music. I know you got Nicholas Britell to do the score.

BJ: I knew I wanted a professional score because I think my filmmaking speaks to that. But, the music I grew up with which I think Tarrell speaks to so beautifully in the piece is not a professional score, so I was like how can I merge these things, and Nick was like, “Let’s chop and screw the orchestra.” What I love about it is, the more masculine that Black or Chiron becomes, the orchestra gets harder as well. I’m really proud of the music, I think instead of taking the hood to the art house, Nick took the art house to the hood.

What was the casting process like for these three Chrions and three Kevins?
BJ: We have this woman, Yesi Ramirez who was born and raised in Miami but now lives in LA, which I think is key because she knew what we were looking for despite the fact that we looked all over the country and even across the ocean to find these characters. But the eyes were a major part of it. My thinking was that if we found these guys with the same feeling in their eyes, there would be this continuity across three chapters. But also, Trevante, Ashton and Alex they all have a lot going on in their eyes because they know what it feels like to be a Black man in this country. There is all of this shit swirling around you; all of these micro-aggressions and shit that you can’t touch. That was the bedrock of our casting process. They didn’t have to look alike, but they had to feel alike. Once we settled on that, the other element is that these characters are so different. Little, Chiron, and Black are different people, but I want them to remain different. I want their differences to reflect the time that has passed between say story two and story three so you can see that the world has done this to him. With the camera, we tried to frame them a certain way to keep the audience queued in that this was the same person.

How was the film shot? The three Chirons in the film and the three Kevins in the films are near carbon copies of one another. Were you able to look at the other actors' performances?

AH: Unfortunately, or fortunately neither of us had an opportunity to meet with the younger versions of ourselves. That was something that we wanted to do, but Barry was adamantly against it. So, a lot of it just involved trust, just trusting that Barry was going to take care of us; which he did.

Trevante Rhodes: Very much so.

Why was Barry so adamant about you all not meeting the younger versions of yourself?

TR: He wisely wanted to depict that throughout our lives we change so drastically depending on what happens to us, and the film depicts three specific moments in this person’s life. Again, the fact that this journey is just something that we go through and we don’t really hone in on that as people; it was just really smart of him to do that.

BJ: I didn’t just give them their section of the script; they all had the full script so they each knew the full character journey. So, though I didn’t allow them to meet one another, they all carried this feeling of the journey that came before; especially Trevante, into their work

TAM: Yes and they were inquisitive about the entire scope of work they were doing. I loved the fact that Alex was ten years old when you cast him, but read the whole script and was like, “I don’t understand the other two.” I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about being a Black man. He already knows that there are things written about him that he needs to experience; that he’s curious about. He’s hungry, and you can’t teach that.

Trevante, when you watch the film back, do you connect to the younger self on the screen?

TR: One billion percent yes. I think Alex is so similar to what I used to be and the way I used to look. Barring some change in the nose, I felt when I watched the film for the first time I said, “What?! This is like a reincarnation of myself.” Then I had that taller, gangly stage of my life where I was skinny and everything. So, the whole thing was just like a surreal moment the first time I saw it, so absolutely.

Did either of you have any apprehensions about the role as far as the subject matter was concerned? For example, when Will Smith was doing “Six Degrees Of Separation,” Denzel Washington told him it would not be wise to see a prominent Black actor kissing another man on film.

AH: I wanted to tackle it! I would have run through a wall to be in this. I feel like we’ve come a long way from that. Also, with me being really close friends with Tarell, he’s opened my eyes to so many things over the course of the ten years that we’ve been working together. For me, it’s an honor to get to represent these people’s lives. I don’t feel any kind of, “Oh, I wonder what people are going to think of me?” Also, I don’t know what Denzel and those guys thinking was back then, but maybe part of that was because they were trying to build a certain movie star image. But, that’s that, that’s not what I’m doing. We’re trying to tell real stories about real people, so I’m honored to be in it.

TR: For me, it’s like I’m ignorant to the fact that there is a difference, to be honest with you. I could have just as easily been born loving men, and I would have been the same person. So, I love when people ask that question because it’s like, why is there a difference? To have the opportunity to portray someone like this and to tell a story that is so beautiful about someone who is so nuanced. It's amazing to show that a can be this hulking hyper-masculine individual but at the same time, display this love and emotion, that is real and says we are three-dimensional people and that we are multifaceted is just this incredible thing.

Why do you feel this film is so important?

AH: There are so many reasons. I think that right now we’re living in the Black Lives Matter era. I think it's very difficult for me to understand how we can say, “Black Lives Matter” and push for equality and social justice but at the same time within our own community, marginalize a whole other section of who we are. It feels unfair and unkind, and not right. So I think one of the reasons why this film is so important is that it puts the gay Black experience front and center. It’s not about AIDS or people in enormous crisis or the down low. It’s not about that. It’s just about people being in love with each other and trying to work shit out. Somehow white queer narratives have been able to move on from the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and become something else, whereas the Black queer narrative hasn’t been able to do that yet. So, I hope that this movie helps to put that forward.

BJ: I think in the story, one of the strongest moments is when Juan unpacks the word . I think for a kid to see that scene whether they identify as LGBTQ or not is important. There’s this great quote about the film that says, “Juan unpacks the word but he doesn’t unpack Little with it.” I think that distinction is very important. I think because of the journey this character goes on in the film; you watch, and you see how this guy gets further away from who he is. I think when you see the power we have to affect people for ill; I would hope that kids would humanize and identify with that character.

TAM: I think it’s about being in a community that is more than just yourself, Being in a community where you realize everyone is not just like you but needs the same things you do. Also, one of the things that drive me crazy is that all of the things we tie to homosexuality are not what I think about all day. So my journey to even having sexual thoughts or intimate thoughts was so vast because I was like, “I can’t think about it because this other thing is cutting me off at the knees.” That didn’t just happen to me as a person who eventually identified as gay; that happen to people who are straight. What are these kids losing? They are losing intimacy, vulnerability, we are teaching each other that intimacy and vulnerability and friendship are not valuable. I didn’t hug another man until I was nineteen years old. What is that? We wonder why people are running to therapy sessions, and yet we embedded this hyper-masculinity this anti-feminism into our boys for no reason. It doesn’t affect just the LGBTQ community; it affects all of us who are sitting under the weight of that

BJ: It’s interesting because the reason why we push hyper-masculinity is because we think it’s the only way we can survive. I’m speaking of the collective we because we are all implicated in this somehow. But, I think it’s important to understand there is more than one way to survive, the two things are not in opposition

I think it’s interesting because when you look at the third act at Kevin and Black, they are surviving differently. Kevin has been through his journey to get where he is, but, Chiron hasn’t even begun yet.

BJ: Exactly. What I love about André’s performance as Kevin, is that he just creates this space for Black to step in. He like I’m not going to pull you, I’m not going to push you, I’m just going to create the space, and you can come as far as you want to come.

TAM: One of the things André and I always talked about was the character of Elegba in Yoruba cosmology. It’s the deity that you meet at the crossroads, and he’s always depicted as more than one thing. I think in Dre’s performance he understands that Kevin can be more than one thing to more than one person. Sometimes, that’s dangerous, but one can survive in that way. You don’t have to pull yourself into one cannon or silo in order to exist. Obviously, it's not without its complications, but that’s all survival is. I think that’s one of the great things about this pair is that we see on person trying to define themselves by brick and mortar and this other person that is trying to be liminal and limitless.

André and Trevante, what work did you both do for the third act, because there is this beautiful tension that runs through that entire section?

TR: You know what, I think Barry really organized it a way that you’re being reintroduced to someone you no longer know anything about. So the way that Barry approached it was the same thing. I knew nothing about André, to be honest; I’d never heard his voice before, and I apologize for never having seen his stuff, but I had no idea who he was. So, the first time I heard his voice was that phone call. The first time we met in person was ten minutes prior to the car scene. André is just a beautiful person, we just had this rapport instantaneously which was incredible. I wanted to be like André; I wanted to ascribe to be that kind of actor, and I put him on a pedestal. I feel like Chiron, in a sense felt that way with Kevin. Kevin was this confident guy he was always so sure of himself and Chiron obviously wasn’t, so he was trying to get to that point. So the relationship that André and I formulated in real life really related to the film even though the context in the film’s narrative is different. The way that Barry approached it was ingenious.

What do you want this film to say to viewers that are dealing with similar struggles? How can they confront their struggles that aren’t necessarily visible?

AH: I think you’re right. As far as we know, neither Kevin nor Chiron has fathers in their lives. Chiron has a male father figure in Juan, but Kevin doesn’t. So I think what we see in the second part is Kevin performing what he thinks masculinity is. He’s constructed his identity around being this guy who has all of these girls. He’s smooth-talking, and he’s funny, and he knows how to handle himself. However, when he gets forced into a situation where he has to make a choice between preserving his own identity in his community or hurting someone he deeply cares about and possibly revealing something about himself that’s deeply personal, he makes a choice that a lot of teenagers would make in that circumstance. But, at some point between when we see him then and in story three, he’s let go of that mask of hyper-masculinity to a degree. He’s realized that he’s more than just one thing, and somehow he’s made peace with that for himself. And that to me, I just find that really beautiful, I think that’s such a complicated thing for a brother to do all by himself; to figure that shit out.

How important was it not to define these characters with labels?

BJ: I feel like the journey of the character Black does not end where the film ends. I call it passion versus intimacy, and I feel like passion wasn’t the place that he’d reached at that point, I feel like intimacy was. I feel like that character is going to move very slowly into that space; baby steps at first. In the last twenty-five minutes of the film the way we cover time shifts. Now we are covering weeks and days, and I wanted to have fidelity to that. Whether the character is gay or not, I think so, but I think the character is open to interpretation.

TAM: I think those qualifiers are really problematic. I think those types of qualifiers are silly to talk about. I mean is intimate with a man; that’s true. He has to decide if his gayness is predicated on that. Now this is a queer story; this is definitely about queer people and their experiences, but I think it’s about also about figuring out what that identity is.

Has there been a difference in the way from people from different backgrounds have responded to “Moonlight?”

TR: It hasn’t been different at all, which is the most insane thing in the world to me. Because again, it speaks to everyone no matter what your age is, sexual orientation, or your race, it’s crazy because it is a very very specific story about a specific person. But in that, everyone can see a bit of themselves in Chiron or see Chiron in themselves.

AH: I think that’s Barry’s genius, He stays away from making broad strokes and generalizations about cultures or things, he just gets very very very specific about who these people are. Everybody has a point of access, though, which is the magic of this movie.

TAM: Well Barry’s response has been my favorite response. His response to the original piece I mean. When you’re a person who needs representation, you kind of have to get excited when someone wants to champion your story. And, Barry didn’t denigrate it in any way. There was never a day when he was like, “Look I’m going to come dumb this down.” If anything he was like, “I’m gonna add more of this!” After that initial response I was like cool, we’re in this.




What do you love about being a Black man?

TR: To be quite honest, and I don’t know if this sounds strange, but I like being underestimated. I like the fact that I get to show people certain sides of that some other people don’t naturally believe we have or can do or can be. Society has always suggested that we are lesser people and I like to be a part of a conversation that can combat that. I like to be around other people that can push and progress us forward as a people.

AH: I don’t know how to say it exactly, but I think the first thing that comes to mind and what I love most is what’s in the blood of us as a people.

TR: Elaborate sir!

AH: What I mean is like when I hear our music, when I hear the drums that are in this movie, that connects to something in me that’s also in my mama and my daddy, that’s also in my grandmamma and my granddaddy and so on and so on and so on. When I find myself in a tricky spot, and I listen to that drumbeat, I know it’s going to be alright because it’s been alright for a long time. You can’t take that away. It’s in us, it’s beautiful and can’t nobody say nothing about it, that’s what I love. And still after going through all we have gone through, we are the most compassionate people, the most understanding people, the most elegant people. That’s why I think people are going to love this movie, even the ones who are caught up in the stuff that religion has taught us to believe; how to divide ourselves. I think behind all of that we are just a deeply understanding and deeply feeling people and I think people are going to be moved by this.

BJ: I just love meeting eyes with other Black men and getting a nod. It’s funny whenever I’m in Europe or Canada I try it out, and sometimes I get it back and sometimes I don’t. I think the whole foundation of this piece is intimacy and I love the ways our Blacks and Kevins always give each other dap; every single time.

What type of conversations do you hope to spark from people who see this film?

AH: For one, I hope people who are going through these things or are having these conversations about themselves will have a point of reference. It creates the opportunity to have a conversation in a safe space; that’s number one. And on a macro level, I hope Barry Jenkins gets to make whatever type of movie he wants to make from here on out, and other people like Barry Jenkins are encouraged to make movies like this one. These are subject matters that are sometimes ignored or don’t get the support that they deserve. So that’s why I think it’s important that people really come out and see this film. This is why magic like this gets made, but if people don’t show up and buy the tickets we’re back where we started. We gotta come and support.

"Moonlight" is out in USA theaters today.




Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

by Aramide A. Tinubu on April 20th 2017
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