Oscar-winning Moonlight director Barry Jenkins on privilege, awards, and turning his childhood into cinema

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins
"It was inherently, viscerally personal. It was biography:" Moonlight director Barry Jenkins Credit: EPA/MARTEN VAN DIJL

I meet Barry Jenkins right at the beginning of the second act of his star-is-born moment; three months after a select few people got their first glimpse at his sophomore masterpiece Moonlight; but before the global accolades and Oscar wins that have since confirmed him as a major new voice in filmmaking. He’s still easing into his newfound stardom.

“Time is so slippery right now,” he says, through a cold spurred on by the harsh London winter. “Because I’m so in the eye of the hurricane, I don’t have a really good perception of what’s happening. I’m in a room talking to people, and that’s all I know. But sometimes I go out of these rooms — I live in LA, and every now and then, maybe twice a week, I’ll be somewhere and someone will say ‘Hey, are you the guy that made Moonlight?’ And I’ll be like, ‘What the f---?’ How do you know that?’”

Moonlight trailer Moonlight trailer
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There were early signs that the film was going to be something good, with Brad Pitt amongst its producers and the buzzy A24 Films (distributor of Room, Ex Machina and The Witch) its sole financier. But with few stars, an under-the-radar production, and a director unknown outside of the festival circuit, it hardly seemed likely to turn into the leading, globally-acclaimed awards contender it has become. Before Moonlight, Jenkins also hadn’t made a film in nearly ten years.

He’s the first to admit that he wasn’t a born cinephile, proudly proclaiming Die Hard his favourite film. But while on a football scholarship at Florida State University, he impulsively changed his major to film. He quickly fell in love with cinema, finding a kinship with the works of Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsay and Wong Kar-Wei.

We only worked with Naomie Harris for three days, and in those three days, it was inherently, viscerally personal. It was biography.Barry Jenkins

Jenkins subsequently made shorts, interned for Oprah, and sourced $13,000 to produce his first film, 2008's Medicine for Melancholy: a monochrome hipster romance. It was a minor festival hit, but hardly a calling card for a major filmmaking career. Seven years later, he remained uncertain about what he truly wanted to do next, until an unproduced play by a writer Tarell Alvin McCraney found its way into his mailbox.

Jenkins’ adaptation of McCraney’s autobiographical In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue became the far more succinct Moonlight. The film follows three chapters in the life of Chiron, a quiet outcast yearning for love and stability whilst coming to terms with his burgeoning sexuality.

Echoing through the three sections, each anchored by a different actor inhabiting the central role, are a chorus of voices: a junkie mother, played by a revelatory Naomie Harris, who treats Chiron as much as a punching bag as she does a crutch; Mahershala Ali’s conflicted neighbourhood dealer, who eagerly takes him under his wing; his compassionate girlfriend, played by musician Janelle Monae; and Kevin, the boy Chiron shares classes with, whose strange, erotic allure can scarcely be internally acknowledged, let alone put into words.

Jenkins (R) alongside Moonlight's original playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney Credit: Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Like Chiron, Jenkins grew up in the impoverished public housing communities of Eighties Miami, barely a stone's throw from McCraney’s own childhood home, with an absent father and a mother buried in addiction. While the parallels between filmmaker and protagonist seem clear on paper, it took Jenkins some time to realise it. He had been toying with directing a project with far greater parallels to his own upbringing, particularly his relationship with his mother, but got cold feet. Moonlight, in contrast, seemed appealingly alien.

“I thought, huh, this thing Tarell did -- that’s great, because that won’t be personal,” Jenkins recalls. “That’ll be Tarell’s life. And then, over the process of writing it and directing it, I realised, s---, this is way, way personal.”

“But it’s beautiful because I think even assumed distance, or assumed objectivity, created just enough space for me to be able to see what the piece actually was. The one time that didn’t happen was when Naomie Harris showed up to play Paula, who is essentially this fictionalised version of my mom. And there were things she was doing where it was like [that] distance was gone. We only worked with Naomie for three days, and in those three days, it was inherently, viscerally personal. It was biography.”

Naomie Harris in Moonlight Credit: A24/David Bornfriend 

A sense of personal identification with Chiron wasn’t just unique to their respective mothers, either. While Jenkins concedes that Moonlight is far more autobiographical for McCraney than himself, Chiron’s youthful loneliness struck a familiar chord. In the film’s second chapter, the teenage Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders) is relentlessly teased, be it for his quiet demeanor, lack of confidence, or his too-tight jeans.

“I saw in Chiron the process I went through, as a kid who stifled his voice, or as a kid who grew up [feeling] more or less isolated from the outside world,” Jenkins says. “When you [get to] the third story -- his issue is that he feels he’s unworthy of love, because he’s never really seen or had the space where he could see love, shared amongst family or amongst lovers, that had no ounce of shame. I think I could identify with that. That [same] evolution is one I went on in my personal life, but I completed it by the time I got to this film.”

In centring on a queer African-American man, Moonlight represents a perspective little seen on screen before - all at once dealing with race, class, masculinity and sexuality. Jenkins admits such intersectionality was intentional.

Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron in Moonlight Credit: A24/David Bornfriend 

“All those different layers came baked into the piece,” he says. “I think, as a filmmaker, I could have decided, ‘This is one too many layers, I need to dial this down a bit’, [but] it felt like in order to be truthful to our experience, to have fidelity to our lives, those things had to be a part of the piece. Moonlight isn’t an issue film. It’s not about addiction, it’s not about sexuality, it’s not about identity. It’s about all these different layers, because they are all a part of the character.”

Nevertheless, with homosexuality such a large part of McCraney's play, I couldn’t help but wonder if, in an artistic climate where there is increasing emphasis on empowering minority voices to tell their own stories, was Jenkins - as a heterosexual male - anxious about guiding the reins of a gay coming-of-age story?

“Only at the very beginning,” he remembers. “When the piece first came to me, I didn’t know if I was the person to do it. And part of that was my own personal preference — I just felt like there were certain narratives that had to be told from a first-person perspective, and this I felt like was one of them.

Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron in Moonlight Credit: A24/David Bornfriend 

“My way of working through that was that if I [could] preserve Tarell’s voice, I think I can wed that with my voice and take authorship of the piece. Tarell and I had a very open and honest exchange of thoughts about the character, and I think over the course of the idea-sharing process, I got more and more comfortable with the idea of me, heterosexual man, telling the story of Chiron.

“But it was a hurdle to get over. It wasn’t because I was afraid of dealing with characters who identify as homosexual or anything like that, I thought: Do I have the right to tell this story? And I’ll give Terrell credit, he’s like ‘F--- that shit. You wanna tell the story, you tell the story. Just make sure you tell it right.’”

Moonlight transitioned quickly from page to screen. After a month-long exodus writing the script in Brussels (“the most boring city in Europe”, he jokes, so the perfect place to immerse himself in writing without distraction), the film went before cameras. So far it has grossed $20 million at the US box office, won a Best Picture Golden Globe, and scored eight Oscar nominations.

Do I have the right to tell this story? And I’ll give [playwright] Terrell Alvin McCraney credit, he’s like ‘F--- that shit. You wanna tell the story, you tell the story. Just make sure you tell it right.'Barry Jenkins

While Jenkins so skillfully shepherded the project from the get-go, he’s quick to sing the praises of both A24 and Plan B (Pitt’s production company) in helping give weight to his vision, and almost seems embarrassed by how easily the film came together.

“I can’t say that every filmmaker that makes a film in this space, about a character like this or in this world, is gonna have the same experience, because every movie is really difficult to make,” he says. “It just so happens that this movie was not.”

“I would love to say, ‘It was so damn hard to make my ‘hood movie about a kid questioning his sexuality with a crackhead mom, told in three different chapters, in a very arty way, with no name actors as the leads,’” he jokes. “But it wasn’t, and I just can’t say that it was. And I hate that, because it places me as a person of privilege, which I don’t like being. But I have to admit, my process with this film has been very privileged.”

Alex Hibbert as the young Chiron, alongside Mahershala Ali in Moonlight Credit: A24/David Bornfriend 

Jenkins’s discomfort is illuminating, if familiar to anyone who has found success despite the odds being stacked up against them; the sudden reversal of fortune that has taken him from a person of few means to one with significant power. He speaks often about his own personal narrative, using scriptwriter vernacular to describe his journey, and the strange detours one’s life can unexpectedly go down.

With his next project (an adaptation of Colson Whitehead's genre-bending novel The Underground Railroad) already lined up, it may seem that he has been given the keys to the kingdom, yet he is characteristically modest about his more than impressive achievement with Moonlight, or the Oscar wins he was ultimately destined to receive.

“I don’t want the results, or any of the stuff of the last couple of months, to effect my pride in the work we did,” he says. “It’s been amazing that the response has been so overwhelmingly positive, but had it been overwhelmingly negative, I would still want to be in this place that I am, where I’m very proud of the film.

“And that’s it, you know. I just want to share it with whomever is willing to watch it.”

Moonlight is in cinemas now.

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