Big-hearted and inclusive, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film could be just the film for troubled times
Is Barry Jenkins the most down-to-earth name for the year’s hottest indie director?
THE RELEASE OF Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has straddled two very different eras. It was released in the US, to rave reviews, in October in a time of progress. The first black President was in power and the first woman President was expected to succeed him. When it’s released in the UK in February Donald Trump will be America’s President. This timing would not necessarily be remarkable if not for Moonlight’s subject.
The film tells of three stages in the life of Chiron, a black boy growing up gay in a poor part of Miami. It finds him first when he’s a shy pre-teen, then as an awkward, angry teenager, and finally as an adult who has built himself an identity he wears like armour. It treats everyone from drug dealers to violent criminals with understanding and sensitivity. It views all of its characters as people of worth; it allows them mistakes, but expects them to pay for them. It represents an open worldview currently being shouted down in America, where white supremacy is on the rise and division is stark.
“[On election day] I actually had people tweeting me saying they didn’t know how to respond [to the result] and the only thing they could think to do was go and see Moonlight,” recalls Jenkins. “Whatever you think of the US election results, the only real solution is to do a better job of seeing one another and understand what other people are going through.”
It was never meant to be a commentary on the world we’re now in. It’s just a story about who you choose to be versus who you are. Although it has the deep-hearted truth of a memoir, Moonlight isn’t Jenkins’ story. It’s actually based on a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin Mccraney, In Moonlight Black
Boys Look Blue. “A friend of mine gave it to me and said it was kind of my story,” says Jenkins. “Which I didn’t really understand at first [Jenkins is straight]… but then I read it and it was.” Mccraney and Jenkins grew up in the same impoverished part of Miami; in fact, they went to the same school, though they never met. Both their mothers struggled with drug abuse. “I was a quiet kid and I could identify with this sense of being something other,” says Jenkins. “I felt that
sense of isolation Chiron has.” Putting well-known actors like House Of
Cards’ Mahershala Ali, in the role of Chiron’s drug dealer mentor/father figure, and Naomie Harris in the role of Chiron’s mother, Jenkins scouted unknowns in Miami to play Chiron at his different stages of life. He settled upon Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. “I wanted to cast fresh faces [to play Chiron],” notes Jenkins. “I didn’t want any association with past work. The physical similarity wasn’t as important for me as the idea that they had the same soul.” All three performances should make them known very soon, particularly Rhodes. Though it’s only his second film — his debut,
Medicine For Melancholy, was a full eight years ago — Moonlight has graced many lists of the best films of the year, and done solid box-office numbers so far, accruing $11 million in the US. “I could not have anticipated this reaction,” says Jenkins. “We got a standing ovation at the BFI London Film Festival, which amazed me. I understand you [Brits] don’t really do that, right?”
Charged with momentum, Moonlight is now a decent bet for Oscar glory. Most will remember the #Oscarssowhite embarrassment of last year, where room was found for several forgettable performances by white actors, while the likes of Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton or Idris Elba in Beasts Of No Nation were overlooked.
Moonlight is one of several pictures that should make it impossible, or at least indefensible, for Academy voters to repeat themselves this year.
Along with Fences and Loving, as well as possibly Hidden Figures, Jenkins’ empathy-filled drama is part of a strong year for films with black central characters. That those movies are a mix of studio pictures and indies can only say good things about the direction the industry is moving. Although $11 million is hardly blockbuster money, Moonlight cost under $5 million. Its popularity should be a reminder to financiers that small, intimate dramas of real quality will always find an audience.
“We can all relate to the feeling of being an outsider at some time in our lives,” says Jenkins. “There are people who will see this movie who won’t know the place Chiron grew up but will be able to feel what that’s like. It’s a human experience.” For all the saddening, maddening events it depicts, Moonlight is a movie to make you believe in the goodness of humanity. After 2016, a year most will look back on with a ceaseless internal scream and possibly a bit of a cry, we could all use a little more belief in that.
MOONLIGHT IS IN CINEMAS FROM 24 FEBRUARY
Clockwise from left: Chiron as a teenager, played by Ashton Sanders; Janelle Monáe as Teresa, Chiron’s surrogate mom; Trevante Rhodes ponders life as a grown-up Chiron; Naomie Harris as Paula, Chiron’s crackaddicted mother; Mahershala Ali as Juan, drug dealer and mentor to the boy as a child (Alex R. Hibbert).