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'Moonlight' director Barry Jenkins: 'There was no code switching in this film'

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The film follows a young boy in Miami and his journey into adulthood. And for filmmaker Barry Jenkins, he doesn't shy away from showing his real life struggles on the big screen.

Barry Jenkins first attended the Telluride Film Festival in 2002 as a volunteer. He was cleaning toilets and serving popcorn. After working the festival every year since, Jenkins is now attending the festival as filmmaker. 

"Moonlight" made its world premiere at the 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival. It was directed and written by Jenkins, adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”

The movie is about a young boy discovering his sexuality and how his life experiences in Miami shape him as an adult. The story is told in three chapters of his life: from elementary school, high school, and as a young adult. 

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Barry Jenkins about the process of putting a portion of his life on screen, highlighting his hometown of Miami, and being an ally for the LGBTQ community. 


On Tarell McCraney’s play and the beginnings of “Moonlight”:

So Tarell and I both grew up in Miami in the same neighborhood, a neighborhood called Liberty City. It's what you would call the South Central of Miami. Both our moms went through this very horrible addiction in our childhoods. I didn't know Tarell, but we grew up blocks from each other, went to the same elementary school, same middle school.

He wrote this play and gave it to a mutual acquaintance of ours and that guy saw something in the play that reminded him of me. I'd never heard of Tarell. I didn't know his work at that point, but I read it and I just saw this very visceral story. It took me back to my childhood in a way that I wasn't ready to go back. Right away I said, “It's a film that I have to make,” because it was really personal.

On the intimacy between the male characters in the film:

It is about intimacy between men but I think more specifically it's about intimacy between black men, which we don't see in arts very often. In this film, we see them from atypical depictions of black men.

I think throughout the film there are all these moments where in the black community when black men greet each other they dap. It's like a fancy handshake. We do very simple daps in this film, but in every story when the characters first meet, they dap. There's just something that I felt was important about an audience seeing this spiritual transference between black men that is caring. Because this is a movie full of characters that need to be cared for. 

Alex R. Hibbert (left) and Mahershala Ali star in the new drama "Moonlight."
David Bornfriend/A24
Alex R. Hibbert (left) and Mahershala Ali star in the new drama "Moonlight."

On the importance of authenticity in the movie’s dialogue:

The most important audience for me with this film are the people who live where this film takes place. So there was no code switching in this film. Absolutely not. I think presenting the film here at Telluride is great, but that does not mean that the language of the film does not have fidelity to where it takes place.

The movie opens with the most Miami local guy who's never acted before. The first time my manager saw it, he was like, I think you might need subtitles. I was like, No it's just Miami, bruh. It's just Miami. It was really hugely important and I think that in order to really resonate with the people who are like the characters in our film, it just had to be in their voice.

On casting actors to play the same character:

It was really important for me to reflect how the world impacts us. I'm very much a person of nurture over nature. When the world is not nurturing, it can really change a man. I wanted on screen the character to physically change, to become a different person from story to story. There's all this information in between the stories that I think when you see that character for the first time as we advance, you realize okay something has changed. So it was always, from the very beginning, my intention to cast different actors to play the same character. 

I was looking for the same feeling in all of these guys. It wasn't important to me that they really look alike. There are some physical similarities. You can see them progress through time, but it was much more about the feeling.

Over the course of the story, we get to the third story, and literally the character has fortified himself; he's build this really hard exterior. But you look in his eyes and you see that same little boy. It was really important to me. It was a really concrete way of humanizing the character to have an emotional through line as this guy becomes like a manly man on the exterior.

Barry Jenkins is the director and writer of "Moonlight."
David Bornfriend/A24
Barry Jenkins is the director and writer of "Moonlight."

On Jenkin’s emotional connection to the story:

It was definitely the most difficult thing for me in the process of taking the play and adapting it to the screen. I think trying to flesh out this character who is sort of a composite of my mom and Tarell's mom, it took me to some very dark places. Both my mother and Tarell's mother went through raging, ravaging addiction over the course of our childhoods. I think Naomi [Harris] does a great job of depicting that in the film. I never thought I'd make a film this personal that has literal moments from my biography. I think it brought back so many emotions.

This piece was really very viscerally about where I'm from. It was also about where Tarell's from. And there's a whole set of things that Tarell went through growing up that I did not. But it was great as an ally working with empathy. I wasn't really bullied growing up, but Tarell was. I've always felt like, it would be wonderful to tackle that issue. 

Naomie Harris stars as Paula in the new drama "Moonlight."
David Bornfriend/A24
Naomie Harris stars as Paula in the new drama "Moonlight."

On sharing the same childhood experiences with writer Tarell McCraney:

It was one of those things because Miami is a small place. The neighborhood we grew up in is a small place. You're talking like eight square blocks. That's our whole world. The fact that we didn't know each other — I don't know. It was just kind of shocking. But the beautiful thing about it was, we went from that place.

Tarell is now, at this point, Steppenwolf, Royal Shakespeare. He's got plays at the Public. Here I am at Telluride. And yet, it all began in the same eight square blocks. We were both kind of dumbfounded by it to be honest.

Then when we started comparing our biographies, it was shocking. There's probably a version of the world where both our moms were in the same place doing very bad things. I absolutely believe that happened. It was just one of those things.

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins at the 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival with his film "Moonlight."
Keith Ladzinski for KPCC
Filmmaker Barry Jenkins at the 43rd annual Telluride Film Festival with his film "Moonlight."

On being an ally for the LGBTQ community:

I approached this film as an ally. It's interesting, when the supreme court passed that bill everybody went on Facebook and changed their profiles to the rainbow overlay. I thought that was interesting, but it wasn't active. As an ally, when I read this piece by Tarell, and learning about him and how personal his identity and how much his sexuality was a part of his identity, I thought as an ally empathy can only get me so far.

But I'm a visual storyteller and the way for me to be politically active is to tell a story about this. I'm just glad that people who see themselves in the film feel like it comes from a personal, organic, authentic place.

"Moonlight" is out in theaters on October 21.

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