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Director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell McCraney (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell McCraney (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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The Radical Intimacy of ‘Moonlight’

On the collective vision behind the year’s most sensual film

Two brown teenage boys on a Miami beach late one night, their dark skin alive in the moonlight, their voices saying nothing and everything at once — boys free to be who they want to be, free to allow each other to be who they are. It’s an image that should hardly feel radical, when you think about it: two boys, a blunt, and a beach. Now see it for the phenomenon it really is: male intimacy. Black male intimacy, and the freedom and vulnerability that come with it. That’s an image most of us don’t get to witness every day — certainly not at the movies or even on TV. Hence the beauty of the image — and of Barry Jenkins’s new film, Moonlight, from which it’s drawn.

"You know," the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, on whose work the film is based, says, "they could just be talking about math class — but they don’t." The truth is not in what these boys say, but "in the closeness of their bodies, and in their just being near each other, and their nearness to the ocean." Jenkins puts it even more simply, and personally: "It’s just about being a boy and figuring out what the hell your sexual identity will be — or what it means."

Moonlight is the story of a young black man coming to terms with who he is and what he wants in a world unprepared to accept him. It is fundamentally a film about intimacy between people who are typically depicted as incapable or undeserving of it. But it’s also a film that emblematizes the intimacy of art-making between the kinds of people it’s about: black men or, to put a finer point on it, poor black men.

McCraney, a 2013 MacArthur fellow, and Jenkins know this story firsthand, because it’s each man’s story. "The people who have seen Moonlight who don’t know my work are surprised that a story set in this world, featuring these characters, was told in this way," Jenkins says. The film is based on a play McCraney wrote about a decade ago, and yet the movie is hardly a simple adaptation. It’s "a union between myself and Tarell," Jenkins says. "I think it yielded something that neither one of us would have been capable of on our own."

Moonlight originated in the late ’00s as a conceptual theater piece titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. McCraney, transitioning from DePaul University to the Yale School of Drama at the time, was approached by the nonprofit Borscht Corp., whose mission is to "tell fresh Miami stories." "It was written as a kind of meditation," McCraney says, "my first way of trying to get into writing screenplays."

The resulting piece, which remains unproduced for the stage, was the circularly structured story of a young boy who goes by Little; a teenager who goes by his birth name, Chiron; and an adult man who calls himself Black — three versions of the same individual, going about a single day in his life at various stages. This is dramatized in scenes that animate the same ritual moments — washing his face, say — over and over, as a boy, then as a teen, then as an adult. It wasn’t quite right for the theater. "I understood that the way plays work, there was no way to see that kind of structure play out with actors on the stage," McCraney says. "It doesn’t move that fast. You can’t change that quickly." On the other hand, he says, there was something distinctively visual about it — just not quite in the way Borscht had in mind for the projects it sought to fund. "They thought it was too big for what they were doing," McCraney says.

The rejection wasn’t a matter of skill, but of scale. Borscht liked the project enough to pass it on to Jenkins, who would make a short film through the nonprofit called Chlorophyl. Jenkins was struggling through a succession of failed projects through the early 2010s, including a feature-length follow-up to his memorable debut, Medicine for Melancholy. "I was kinda at the point where — I don’t know — there’s nothing going on, you know?" Jenkins says. "And I thought I was kinda just done."

When he was handed In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by friends, it came with a message: "It’s not about you, but it’s about you." The similarities between McCraney and Jenkins, both 36, are overwhelming. They grew up together, but they didn’t know it. They were raised in the Liberty Square projects of Liberty City, Miami — both the sons of crack-addicted mothers. Moonlight is the joint effort of two kindred spirits: an accomplished black playwright and a rising black director, a gay man and a straight man — men who speak the same language, honed from the specific cross section of experiences they represent, even if each of theirs is not precisely the same.

Jenkins’s synchronicity with the project was immediate. He began to email McCraney — initially to advise him on how to make it into a movie, but eventually taking it on as his next film. "I wanted to preserve as much of his voice as possible," Jenkins says. "I did feel like it needed to be in an aggressive translation, you know, to make it visual — to make it something that would play with sound and imagery."

It wasn’t a direct collaboration. "It was much more about Barry taking the clay of the piece and chiseling away all the things that he felt weren’t necessary to reveal the things that were most necessary," McCraney says. Jenkins took the three stories of Little, Chiron, and Black and made them linear. Each plays out in its own section of the movie, proceeding chronologically, so that we jump from one era to the next. Moonlight "put much more space between" these iterations of Chiron, McCraney says, "so that you could enjoy them, or engage with them, much more in a way that felt more full. You could have full time with them, rather than going back and forth."

"I think the continuum between myself and himself was so fluid that there were scenes in this film that people will assume: that happened to Tarell, that happened to me," Jenkins says. "Like the idea of, you know, boys going to the bathroom to compare their dicks. That never happened to Tarell. That happened to me."

Moonlight has one of the most powerful but simple gestures I think I’ve ever seen in a movie: one man gently rubbing the head of another. Seems small, and it isn’t at all sexual. Perhaps because of that, it’s able to point to the desire between men as something bigger than sex, but inclusive of it, too. Moments of outright sexuality, such as Chiron’s wet dreams, are complicated by who Chiron is — namely, a black man in love with another black man. Hearing Jenkins and McCraney talk about that, it begins to sound political — even radical. "I’m curious about how we oftentimes look at people and think that they don’t need love or share love or care for love. And then we see that there’s this drug dealer who loves this little boy," Jenkins says, referring to Mahershala Ali’s character, Juan, a drug dealer who takes Chiron in after seeing him flee into a crack house to avoid bullies. "And it gives him the kind of love that we don’t expect. And what that looks like. I’m interested in that because I haven’t seen that before."

A24
A24

Moonlight traces an intimate history of Chiron’s want, of which desire for another man is a fundamental component. But his real desire is to know himself and to learn to accept the man he is. Late in the movie, Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin says, "Never got to do what I actually wanted to do, ’cause all I could do was what people wanted me to do." It’s as if he’s speaking for Chiron, who by the end of the movie has become a man far different from the boy we see at the beginning of the film. Externally, at least. He still visibly shrinks inward — practically wilts in front of our eyes. But he’s got gold fronts now and a hulking layer of muscle obscuring that previously lanky frame. The change is striking: a sudden shift in our understanding of who Chiron is, in a movie whose tripartite structure is premised on such shifts. Black, of the final section, and Little, of the first, seem practically at odds, almost in conflict, separated by all the experiences that shape who Chiron becomes.

Conflicts like these, be they sexual, spiritual, or physical, are what make Moonlight feel so urgent. Almost every scene feels like a fight, whether it’s the loud and raucous kind between Chiron and his crack-addicted mother or the quiet, internal kind that constantly registers on his face. The movie is largely set on the beaches of Miami, and Jenkins’s camera often imitates the roiling ocean’s swirls and tides, swaying to and fro when Chiron feels most comfortable, or spinning in circular sweeps when the moment feels more dangerous. It’s a movie that always allows us to sense what Chiron feels just by the way it makes us look at him: at his downcast eyes, or observant stare, or at the gestures — strokes, caresses — that punctuate the movie end to end. These flourishes might, in another movie, feel like showing off. Here, they exemplify how thoroughly Jenkins translated McCraney’s theatrical vision to the screen — and how carefully both men, working in concert, transformed the rich inner life of Chiron into art.

Chiron’s desire is built into every frame of this movie — the images never sit still, always pulling us toward Chiron, or toward what he wants. And yet Moonlight doesn’t consummate that desire the way any number of films about queer men have. The movie isn’t about sex. "To me," Jenkins says, "that wasn’t the point, you know? The point was: ‘I am a person who has decided they’re unworthy of love and I am the kind of person who has decided that the love they seek is immoral, or is wrong, you know, or is unaccepted, or is unacceptable.’" McCraney echoes the sentiment: "The biggest question was not about whether two people could have sex," he says. "I’m curious about their spiritual intimacy."

That is what makes Moonlight essential — to the people it’s about, and to a history of art that has too rarely known how to render them human. "We know, thanks to popular media, that black men can be sexual," McCraney says. "Can they be intimate? Can they care for each other? Can they be vulnerable? That is a story less told."

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