Interview: Barry Jenkins, dir. Moonlight

In light of last year’s Oscars So White controversy, the eight Academy Award nominations bestowed on Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight could have felt like a reactionary attempt to rectify the ceremony’s lack of diversity. However, unlike other films that attempt to juggle big issues with commercial success, the hype surrounding Moonlight is entirely justified. Not only does Jenkins’ depiction of Black masculinity bring a world rarely seen on the big screen to the forefront; he’s also created a movie of immense beauty and emotional acuity.

Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film chronicles three decades in the life of Chiron, a young, gay, black man growing up in Miami. A triptych of Chiron’s struggle with his sexual identify, these three stories each feature a different actor playing the lead role. Act one introduces Alex Hibbert, as the shy, near-mute ‘Little’, a nickname bestowed on him by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and unlikely father substitute. In act two Ashton Sanders plays teenage Chiron, masking his sexuality in the unforgiving hallways of High School with a pained intensity that’s unbearable to watch.

Finally, in act three we meet Black, played by Trevante Rhodes, the imposing specimen of hyper-masculinity Chiron becomes as an adult. Each actor brings something new to the character, whilst Jenkins’ clever use of music cues and formal rigour allows the viewer to look past the superficial signifiers of Chiron’s identity, and consider the larger societal forces shaping his experience. We recently sat down with Jenkins ahead of Moonlight’s UK release to discuss his influences and what it means to him for a film about growing up poor in his hometown of Miami to be received so warmly at a time when such depictions remain noticeably absent in mainstream cinema.

Patrick Gamble: Congratulations on the Oscar nominations. What does industry recognition like that mean to you?

Barry Jenkins: It’s great! Even though I’m an independent filmmaker, Brad Pitt’s company Plan B produced the movie, so there’s no doubt this is a Hollywood film. At the end of the day, if you’re working in that industry, an Oscar is one of the greatest accolades you can receive. When you’re at film school and you watch the Academy Awards you never think you could be at the ceremony. Of course, the other side of all this is if you watch this film, Chiron is basically me, and you don’t watch the film thinking: “That kid is going to grow up and make something that’s nominated for eight Academy Awards”. When I watch the film it reminds me how shocking this journey has been, both for the piece, and for me.

PG: The film is driven by Chiron’s experiences, and how he reacts to his environment. How did you strike this balance between aesthetics?

BJ: I never wanted to make a film where the issues were visible on the surface. I wanted to make a movie that was experiential, an immersive experience for the audience rooted through the consciousness of the character. You know that saying; “Walk a mile in my shoes”? I wanted this to be the type of film where, by walking a mile in a character like Chiron’s shoes, you feel how these issues are impacting individuals. For me it was just a more organic and fluid way of talking about some of the issues raised in the film. If I tell you I’m making a movie about a poor black boy, growing up in the projects, struggling with his sexuality and living with a mum who is addicted to crack, you think of a social realist drama.

You know what that looks like; there’s naturalism, and a purely observational, very dispassionate camera. But there’s still some level of artifice in the rigour of that style. I wanted to embrace the fact you’re siting in an auditorium watching a film, but I also wanted to go a step beyond and utilise the fact we’re all participating in this. You have to look through the eyes of our main character and then look him directly in the eyes. We didn’t break the fourth wall; we just made a film where the fourth wall was part of the structure.

PG: Moonlight offers a powerful sense of place and your depiction of Miami is unlike any other I’ve seen. How important was it for you to capture the city, as you know it?

BJ: It was very important. We had to have the conversation about filming elsewhere because there were no tax incentives to film in Florida and the budget of the film might have gone further had we filmed in another state. But I felt the atmosphere and the energy of Miami was so integral to the soul of the piece that we had to film there. As a filmmaker you’re always imagining things; what the light is going to look like, what the spaces are going to feel like. In this case, this is literally my home, I didn’t have to imagine it, I knew what the light was going to look like and I knew what the space was going to feel like. We’ve all seen those other depictions of Miami, and to have people come into the cinema and experience those things, in what I hope is a very unique way, is very rewarding.

PG: Can you tell me a bit about your influences?

BJ: There’s Wong Kar-wai and structurally there’s Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times. The third leg would be Clare Denis, with Beau Travail being the biggest influence, especially in regard to dealing with masculinity, repression and physicality. I think those three were the primary visual influences, and as far as the voice of the piece goes it would be James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time. Somewhere in the mix we tried to acknowledge all of our influences but at the same time your influences don’t always become your aesthetic, and you still have the freedom to go elsewhere.

PG: You’ve mentioned your visual and narrative influence, but could you tell us how you created the film’s score?

BJ: Our approach to scoring the film was never to make music and see where it fits. Whilst I was writing the script I always knew it was going to have a chamber orchestra score. It never felt like it was going to be a counter point, like; “Hey this movie is set in the hood but its going to have an orchestral score”, I’m just a guy who likes watching films, and my favourite directors all use orchestral scores. So as I’m writing these scenes I’m hearing those sounds. I watched the film with Nicholas Britell, the film’s composer, and we started with a very simple violin poem. That became ‘Little’s theme. Then we would watch the movie in sequence and we would allow the characters to tell us emotionally where score was necessary. Eventually we started writing not to picture but to Chiron. Of all the Oscar nominations the film’s received, the one that tickles me the most is that Britell is nominated for an orchestral score for an “urban film”.

PG: You also used a lot of Chopped and Screwed; can you tell me a little about this distinctive style of hip-hop and why you chose to use it in the film?

BJ: Chopped and Screwed is interesting, especially when talking about the performance of masculinity. Hip-hop doesn’t really enter the film until Chiron makes this attempt to over compensate his masculinity. Chopped and Screwed, on the surface, is a much more masculine version of hip-hop. The bass gets deeper, the voice gets deeper and a guy like Frank Ocean goes from singing in a falsetto, to something more like a baritone. But hip-hop comes at us at a certain BPM, so when you slow the music down all the pain and yearning in the lyrics comes to the surface. It’s very similar to Chiron; he’s built-up this exterior that’s very aggressive and hyper masculine, but what he doesn’t realise is you can easily see behind that facade, and what you see is this very sensitive young boy.

PG: You mentioned masculinity and it’s one of the themes in the film that’s been overshadowed. What does masculinity mean to you?

BJ: For me masculinity is the way men present themselves. There can be female presentations of masculinity but this film is primarily focused on the way men perform masculinity. For Tarell and I, the film is about this idea that society is often re-enforcing what are acceptable performances of masculinity and what are unacceptable performances of masculinity. I think we have this film where our main character is constantly being told what he can and cannot do with his own masculinity, and what I love about casting three different actors to play the same role is you get the evolution of how Chiron is performing his presentation of masculinity.

For me it’s interesting because in the world that Chiron and I grew up in, sometimes the performance of masculinity can literally be the difference between life and death. When you see Trevante Rhodes in the third story, with all these muscles and the grill, its very clear that he’s projecting “Don’t fuck with me”, because in his world if you don’t project “Don’t fuck with me” you will get fucked with.

PG: During an interview with The New York Times to promote Medicine for Melancholy you said; “I used to be obsessed with race. I’m more obsessed with class now.” Is class still important to you?

BJ: One of the earliest memories I have is the moment I realised I was poor. I would ask myself the question “Do I deserve to be poor? Or am I poor because of something that’s dysfunctional about me?” I think people who have lived in extreme, or consistent poverty can relate to that. Class is a very important part of this film, Chiron is a kid who’s struggling under the weight of many things, and one of those is certainly poverty. I’ve been asked a lot about whether I was aware I was making a film that could be described as being universal. I wasn’t attempting to make something universal, but I do think that class, and the class struggle is one of the few things that unite us regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexuality.

People who have grown up very poor all share this common experience, so I wasn’t intellectually trying to make a commentary on this, and not everyone whose ever been poor can relate to the things that Chiron is going through. However, there’s this one scene in the film, when Chiron comes home and he heats water on the stove so he can take a hot bath. No matter what culture I’m showing the film in, someone will always come up to me and say that scene made them well-up because they remember what it was like to have to heat water on a stove. I will never forget what it felt like to heat water on a stove so I could run a warm bath, I just wont. Its one of those things that keeps you grounded.

Moonlight screens across the UK this weekend ahead of its official release on 17 February.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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