TORONTO — Director Barry Jenkins was visibly moved after his film “Moonlight” earned a standing ovation at its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. After three years in production, it was the moment, Jenkins said, that “people are now seeing the film, really seeing it.” And what they saw was something rare in American movies: a poetic mediation about African-American masculinity.
Jenkins adapted “Moonlight,” which opens Friday, from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical short play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Set in 1980s Miami, it’s a portrait of Chiron, played by three different actors at three stages of his life. Alex Hibbert plays young Chiron, an intensely quiet, bullied boy who’s befriended by low-level local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). With his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), Juan provides more of a home to Chiron than the one he shares with his crack-addicted single mother (Naomie Harris). The teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) wrestles with burgeoning gay sexuality and a complex friendship with boyhood pal Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and, as an adult, by Andre Holland). In his mid-20s, Chiron, cloaked in the armor of an identity not truly his own, drives from Atlanta to Florida to visit Kevin after a long absence. His former friend cooks Chiron a meal and offers, possibly, the nourishment of understanding.
“We walk past somebody like Chiron,” said Jenkins in an interview at TIFF. “We don’ t know who he is, what he’s been through. You watch the movie, especially in a theater, and in the act of watching you’re seeing this character — where he’s from, what shaped him — and there’s something about it that takes people by surprise. It gets inside them. It’s a more direct path to empathy. It’s not intellectual; it’s an emotional path.”
McCraney is openly gay; Jenkins describes himself as “an ally on LGBTQ issues.” Their similarities far outweigh their differences. Although they didn’t meet until they were adults, Jenkins says, “We grew up a year apart, in the same neighborhood [Miami’s Liberty City]; we went to the same schools; and both our moms — this is the most personal part for me — went through struggles with addiction. The character Naomie Harris plays was a composite of my mom and Tarell’s mom.”
A mutual friend from Miami gave McCraney’s play to Jenkins. By then, Jenkins had made his well-regarded first feature, “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008), about a couple finding love in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco, but attempts to make a follow-up film hadn’t materialized. “I knew this was my chance to tell this story if I could preserve Tarell’s voice,” Jenkins says. “We’ve seen allies make stories with empathy [but that turn out to be] clunkers. They’re well-meaning but they can only go so far because they don’t have the voice of the people being depicted onscreen. I thought that Tarell’s voice blended with mine was the way to get to the authentic core of the character.”
Perhaps the most difficult incarnation of Chiron is the young man who emerges in the final portion of the “Moonlight” triptych. Trevante Rhodes embodies Chiron when he is, in Jenkins’s term, “calcified.”
“The character starts to perform this version of masculinity that the world tells him. And all those other things, [he] has to bury them. When Trevante came in to read, I thought, this isn’t the figure I expected. He was even more buff than he is now,” says Jenkins. “But despite all this musculature, his eyes are the eyes of that little dude. I felt like as long as the audience could look inside and believe he was not completely walled over, that you could believe that over the course of the story. [The character of] Kevin slowly gets him to the point where he could peek back out.”
Rhodes, 26, a former track and field star at the University of Texas at Austin, says he understood why the adult Chiron buries his true self and performs the role the world expects him to perform.
“Especially in the African-American community, you’re taught as a black man to be bigger and better much more than your counterparts because it’s the only way to win or succeed. That’s ingrained in us very young,” Rhodes says. “We all have similar struggles; not just about being gay or black, but about identity. Everyone struggles with not knowing who [they] are, to some extent.”
The specificity of “Moonlight” has touched a universal nerve in audiences, which doesn’t surprise Jenkins. The film “isn’t a niche of the black male experience. There are millions of black men like this,” he says, “we just don’t see their stories told like we see others. It’s not for a lack of want; it’s just the structures we built up, there are stories that get through and stories that don’t. It’s why the reaction has been so overwhelmingly positive. It’s that this one got through.”Loren King can be reached at email@example.com.