Identity is perhaps the most elusive of human concepts. Are we the conglomeration of our life experiences, the deterministic products of our genes, or some unquantifiable mixture of both? And what of the stories we tell ourselves? The stories we tell other people?
Moonlight, one of the most important films this fall season, attempts to locate the origins of personal identity. In doing so, it reveals the contortions, the interminable mess it makes as it evolves and shapes itself. In the form of a triptych, the film enters the life of Chiron, a black, gay man, in three distinct stages: childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Each chapter displays his identity in the present tense; when viewed together, the three present tenses take on the cumulative shape of a life. Watching Moonlight, the audience brings the past self to bear on the future self. We witness the cause and effect of external forces on Chiron's identity. We can never definitively answer, "Who is Chiron?" because identity is a work in progress, after all. We can answer, however, "Why is Chiron?" in large part due to the deep reserves of empathy with which Jenkins renders his protagonist's journey.
"I gave everything, man. This movie came damn close to killing me." Barry Jenkins
We meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a child, nicknamed "Little" for his unassuming stature and reticence. With his slightly feminine walk and gentle nature, he's Different with a capital "D," and the bullies at school never let him forget this. They chase him into the outskirts of their poor South Central Miami neighborhood and beat him to a pulp. On one of these such occasions, Little is rescued by a benevolent man who happens to be a drug dealer. He takes the youngster under his wing and teaches him how to swim, among other nurturing acts that his crack-addicted and abusive mother (Naomie Harris) neglects to provide for him. It's as close to a safe haven as the repressed but deeply feeling Chiron has ever dreamed of.
As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), nicknamed "Black" against his will, has turned further inward; his inability to connect with the outside world and burgeoning sexual confusion has left him detached from himself. Most of the time, he's terse and steely and awkward, but sometimes we catch a glimpse of the oceanic currents of emotion welling inside him. Finally, the boy's tenderness having been subjected to repeated violent rejection, the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has calcified. He wears a cloak of masculinity that overcompensates for—and belies—a man in search of love, acceptance, and intimacy.
Chapter I: "Why haven't you made a f*cking film?"
Growing up as a gay black man in South Central Miami, Tarell McCraney—who wrote the play on which Moonlight is based—lived the narrative. "These images are real for me," McCraney said on a panel with Jenkins and the film's producers at the 2016 New York Film Festival, where Moonlight screened in advance of its October 21 release. "That's my life. There are things being said that were said. There were actions taking place that happened."
The Yale School of Drama graduate and MacArthur Genius had the story brewing within him for many years, but, trained as a playwright, was hesitant to write a movie. "My high school theater teacher told me, 'If a play keeps coming to you in stark images, it's not a play, and you have to find the right language,'" McCraney said. "So, I already knew Moonlight wasn't a play. It was non-sequential; there were juxtapositions we just could not pull off in the theater. I put it aside and went, 'This is a piece that's autobiographical, and I don't know what to with it just now.'" Confusing matters further, McCraney's plays tend to reveal themselves initially as a feeling or question, around which he later builds a story. "Moonlight was the opposite," he said. "There were all kinds of feelings, but the story was already there. It was a piece I just couldn't finish."
"I felt like I could preserve the voice and mine my life for what was true and authentic, and I could use my empathy to take it the rest of the way." Barry Jenkins
After living in London to write for the Royal Shakespeare Company, McCraney found his answer very close to home. He'd written a play—In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue—but had yet to bring it to the stage, when a mutual friend passed the stage script along to Barry Jenkins, an up-and-coming director. Though Jenkins and McCraney grew up blocks from each other and were schoolmates in childhood, they had never met.
"I just flew down to Miami," Jenkins remembered. "It was me pitching Tarell, 'Let me do this.'"
Jenkins, who had a full-time job as a programmer for the Telluride Film Festival, had previously languished in the prospect of making another film. Though his microbudget debut Medicine for Melancholy proved a surprise critical success on the festival circuit, eight years had passed, and he had yet to direct a sophomore feature.
Adele Romanski, an indie film producer and long-time friend of Jenkins' from film school, was growing impatient. She knew what Jenkins was capable of. "When you go to a film program, there's always the kid who, year after year, is making the best work in the class," Romanski said. "Barry was always that person."
"She was pushy," said Jenkins. "She would say, 'What the fuck are you doing? Why haven't you made a fucking film?'"
McCraney's play rocked Jenkins from inertia. Reading it for the first time, Jenkins "felt like Tarell took these memories of my memories and put them in a dream state. The process of writing was waking up from a dream and journaling, making sense of it." He wrote the first draft in 10 days. "It just poured out," he said. "It was not difficult at all. I've never had that experience with a screenplay before."
Though Moonlight is not strictly autobiographical for Jenkins, he and McCraney share a visual and cultural language by virtue of their background. "He knew those people," said McCraney. "He took great care of it. When he came to the story, he brought his full self: all of his powers, his spiritual understandings, his cultural moirés, as well as his intimate beliefs. That's what made things happen."
"Empathy has a ceiling—a lot of people try to make movies about others, who aren't others themselves, and it only gets you so far." Barry Jenkins
"I consider myself an ally to the LGBTQ community," said Jenkins. "I'm a straight, black man, yet spending so much time in the Bay Area, it's hard to not develop a sense of aggressive empathy. When I read Tarell's piece, I wanted to take that empathy and put it into action." Yet Jenkins was well aware of the limitations inherent in telling a story that is not your own. "Empathy has a ceiling—a lot of people try to make movies about others, who aren't others themselves, and it only gets you so far," he said. "But I felt like I could preserve the voice and mine my life for what was true and authentic, and I could use my empathy to take it the rest of the way."
During the revisions process, Jenkins sometimes had questions for McCraney, who would fill the writer-director in on specific events in the narrative. "Barry texted me one night and said, 'Do you remember writing that [in the play]?'" said McCraney. "I was like, 'You would remember that if you lived it. It never goes away.'"
Chapter II: An unscripted circumstance
Medicine for Melancholy was made on a shoe-string budget of $15,000, but Jenkins and Romanski knew Moonlight would need more resources. That's when Jenkins remembered Plan B Entertainment. Originally founded by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (and now owned by the former), Plan B has backed a diverse slate of films, from Eat, Pray, Love to Selma to Tree of Life. Here, Jenkins saw an opportunity to rekindle an old connection.
"We had seen Medicine for Melancholy and thought it was an incredibly beautiful film and wanted to work with Barry then, like a lot of people did," said Jeremy Kleiner, Co-President of Plan B. Jenkins and Kleiner had communicated back and forth on projects for a few years, but eventually lost touch as Jenkins strayed from directing. "That made the reconnection feel even more special," said Kleiner.
"When we read the screenplay, it felt epic and tender and emotional and intimate at the same time." Jeremy Kleiner
Once Jenkins sent the script for Moonlight, Kleiner and Plan B's President, Dede Gardner, were immediately hooked. "It's rare when something presents itself as if it's ready to run out of the gate, said Gardner. "That's what this felt like. I run on a curatorial, mama bear instinct: 'This story is humming. It is deeply alive. The person who is going to be at the helm is ready. The world is ready. The world needs this.'"
"When we read the screenplay, it felt epic and tender and emotional and intimate at the same time," added Kleiner. "It had an elegant structural concept. It felt uncategorizable—you can talk about it, but there's something beyond how you would describe it that's a feeling, an 'X factor.'"
"They asked if I wanted to go out to dinner," remembered Jenkins. "So I'm sitting there wondering, why am I having dinner [with them]? Then it became very clear. It got real really quick."
Plan B partnered with A24, which had recently expressed interest in financing films in addition to acquiring them. "That was a lovely circumstance that was a little unscripted," Kleiner said. Despite the fact that Miami offered no tax credits—"which is not something to belittle," according to Kleiner, who is well versed in the virtues of production incentives—A24 respected Jenkins' commitment to shooting in his childhood neighborhood. "The question was, 'What does the film need?'" said Kleiner. "I can't think of a moment when they weren't supportive of Barry's vision."
Chapter III: "I gave everything"
"Black men loving each other is a radical idea," said McCraney. "Yet the idea of watching intimacy between black men has always been at the root of my work." When McCraney has directed plays in the past, actors have dropped out midway through rehearsals. "They say, 'I got something else,' but it's always because, at some point, you have to bring that intimacy onstage, and I know they're fearing for what would happen to them [after the play]."
"When we were casting, we felt the world was ready for these kinds of characters." Barry Jenkins
McCraney feared Moonlight would prove even more difficult to cast—after all, plays are ephemeral, and movies are forever. (If we preserve them, that is.) Fortunately, they experienced little resistance. "When we were casting, we felt the world was ready for these kinds of characters," said Jenkins. "A lot of people came out with their heart and souls, and I wanted to be bold in all the casting choices."
Instead, the real challenge lay in casting actors similar enough to play the same person in three different stages of life. "We didn't have time to scout 5,000 kids, so I was looking for a feeling amongst the different actors," said Jenkins. Since film school, the director has been enthralled with Walter Murch's cinema theory, specifically from his seminal text In the Blink of an Eye. "That book gave me a footprint for what to look for in the process of casting, editing, and directing," said Jenkins. "If I could find actors that had the same feeling in their eyes, there would be a continuity."
"To me, sweating is a sign that things are alive." Barry Jenkins
At one point, André Holland, who plays Chiron's love interest as an adult, came in to read for the part of adult Chiron, but his character breakdown warranted a specific appearance that Holland did not fit. (The part later went to a fantastic Trevante Rhodes.) "I was like, 'What world are you in?'" remembered Jenkins. "Chiron is supposed to be buff. But when he read the other side of the conversation—Kevin's—I turned to Adele, and she was already passing me a note that said, 'Not Chiron. Kevin.'"
The entire cast of Moonlight is comprised of black actors, yet Jenkins hired a white man, James Laxton, as cinematographer. "He's been my boy for 15 years, so he knows," said Jenkins. "James did such good work with deep, dark complexions. For the makeup, we didn't use powder. Growing up in Miami, people sweat. To me, sweating is a sign that things are alive."
Production on Moonlight was a Herculean effort for Jenkins. "I gave everything, man," said Jenkins. "This movie came damn close to killing me." But the challenges didn't end with the Martini Shot. In the editing room, Jenkins struggled to find the film's tone. "The first time I showed [the team] the film... Woof. The fact that we're sitting here is a miracle. I think I showed a cut too soon. The response was very adult: 'You gotta do better. Go back in there.'"
Jenkins returned to the drawing board. "I wasn't trusting the film at that point," he said. "You'd be shocked—there's a very funny version of Moonlight with a lot more lightness, just because we had such a good time making it. I think the first cut of the film leaned way too heavily on that."
Moonlight exhibits what might only be described as lyrical realism: its sweeping camera movement and sensual cinematography somehow converge with a documentary approach to create a sense of heightened verisimilitude. Much of this is owed to the emphasis Jenkins put on silence in the editing room. "There's a lot of silence in the film now that wasn't in the very first cut," said Jenkins. "You have to bring other people into the process to help you see things that you cannot see."
That Moonlight feels like a composite of memories is not a coincidence. We experience memories as enhancements of past moments; they often take on a cinematic quality, much like the lyrical realism of Moonlight. Of course, the film is also built of memories, and to McCraney and Jenkins, memory is the stuff of identity.
"I remember specifically that these kids were chasing me," said McCraney. "They were beating me up and throwing rocks at me, and I was running for my life. Then they stopped throwing the rocks. I looked around and there were a bunch of cars, and I realized that they were trying not to hit the cars, but were still trying to hit me. As I was standing there, the sun was setting, and there was this beautiful blush. There was a breeze through the palm trees on 62nd. There was poinsettia growing. That's the world I grew up in. To make that real for people—and myself again—is kind of destabilizing. I'm still processing. I could describe these things to you, but when you feel them, it's different. That's something that you can keep thinking about on the subway. If Moonlight is doing this to me, there is someone else out there that needs this, too."