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.


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).

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