Since doing a links roundup for Get Out and learning so much from it, I decided to do one for Moonlight too. It’s such a singularly beautiful and incredible film that gets better with each rewatch. I feel like there’s so much there that I’m unable to articulate, so I’m going to look for other people to do it for me!
There will, obviously, be spoilers for Moonlight. If you have not watched it, you definitely should.
The light-skinned Kevin has nicknamed Chiron Black, and he asks why, wondering if it’s a put-down. Kevin, who is more comfortable in his own body, says that it’s because Chiron is black; to him, it’s not an insult. This moment of confusion—about internalized self-hatred and the affection of naming—is unlike anything that’s been put onscreen before; it shows what freedom and pain can look like, all in one frame. When the boys kiss, Chiron apologizes for it, and we wince, because who among us hasn’t wanted to apologize for his presence? Intimacy makes the world, the body, feel strange. How does it make a boy who’s been rejected because of his skin color, his sexual interests, and his sensitivity feel? Kevin says, “What have you got to be sorry for?” As he works his hand down Chiron’s shorts, the camera pulls back; this is the only moment of physical intimacy in the film, and Jenkins knows that in this study of black male closeness the point isn’t to show fucking; it’s to show the stops and starts, the hesitation, and the rush that comes when one black male body finds pleasure and something like liberation in another.
The, “What have you got to be sorry for?” line is probably one of my favorites in the movie, though there are many, many great lines. It really shows how the moment isn’t only about physical intimacy but an emotional connection as well.
Since Google analytics has failed me in providing more Moonlight reviews written by actual queer black folks (or even just black people in general), here’s a great, 45min interview on npr with Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins.
JENKINS: You know, I saw myself in this character, Chiron, both in the way that he felt sort of isolated from the world around him, the way – Tarell just did this great job of creating a character who, over the course of the years, kind of retreats, you know, retracts within himself to escape the world around him. And then also, you know, Tarell and I grew up blocks away from one another. And we went to, I believe, the same elementary school at the same time. And both our moms succumbed to this ordeal with crack cocaine.
And I had never talked about that in my work. I had really never talked about it with even some of my closest friends. And so when I read the piece, you know, I thought, this will be a great way to kind of hide behind Tarell but deal with some of these very personal things. You know, I was like, oh, this is Tarell’s story. This is great. I’m just going to tuck a few things in. And it’ll be all about Tarell, and I’m just the guy pressing the button, you know? But of course, you know, when you get into something, you know, this heavy, this deep, there’s no way you can really – you can sort of manage or compartmentalize how much of yourself you give to it. And so what ended up happening was I kind of became this character in a certain way. Which was great because I think the only way to do the film, to complete it in the way that we did and to give myself to these actors in the way I had to was to just fully allow myself to live in the piece.
And some even more raw and open moments about how personal the film is.
MCCRANEY: Well, certainly, I mean, I think we all have those complicated relationships with our parents. I think the addiction sort of ratcheted it up a little bit, unfortunately. I also would say that one of the – one of the great things about the scene we just heard, if there is something great about it, is that you can hear the toggle of that parent who is trying to somehow keep a connective tissue to her child by saying I’m your mother. She is not. I am and don’t you forget it, while at the same time being totally beholden to the monster that’s driving her to take money out of her child’s hands and run out into the street.
I mean, to me, even at that young of age, I was – those things counted to me. In my head, they needed to be sorted into a box that said I understand that she loves me. I also understand that she needs this thing more than me right now. And so more than anger, I felt hurt. I felt – I felt unworthy. And I – that later translated to a sort of disconnect where I couldn’t – I couldn’t sort of be near my mom because I always felt like I wasn’t worthy, I wasn’t enough, that something else was worth more than me.
How do you feel about the current state of black storytelling in cinema?
Holy shit, it is amazing. It’s interesting, I get this question a lot about #OscarsSoWhite and diversity, and it’s tricky because people are framing all these films because there is a bounty of these works right now. But they are very diverse even within the diaspora. My film is nothing like Fences, which is nothing like Queen of Katwe, which is nothing like Birth of a Nation or 13th, and people are framing them as a response to what happened nine months ago. I’m like, it took three and a half years to make my movie. Whatever this is a response to, it was something that we felt was present on the ground, and all these filmmakers who felt like their images weren’t being served took it upon themselves to fill that void. When we speak of these things only as a reaction to what happened nine months ago, we rob the creators and we rob the funders and the supporters of the actual work all those years ago who decided this shit must stop.
I’m always wary when the word “universal” is used unironically, but both Jenkins and McCraney say some great things in this one.
BJ: James Laxton — the cinematographer — and I chose to shoot the film in anamorphic Cinemascope. I wanted to present a version of this character that has this great, wide-open space, these wide-open frames. Not necessarily like a Western, but I wanted the characters to always have the option of getting out of the center of the frame if they chose. This is a character who’s retreating, retracting, burrowing in, and I wanted to create claustrophobia for him without having a congested frame. And I do think the movie is meant to be immersive, so we’re always just a few feet in front of him or behind him. I think that’s a better perspective for the audience to identify with the character than being in an OTS. [Over-the-shoulder shot.] James and I had to do some work to help the audience along. And it was just about trying to find framings, and some sort of editorial juxtaposition that could suggest the feeling of the character from beat to beat.
I’m also not a fan with how some of the questions were framed here, but Jenkins and McCraney do a great job navigating the bullshit (and very politely, might I add).
Can I just say how much I love that Barry Jenkins says something new in every interview? It’s great.
Once we had cast [Alex Hibbert] and all the other kids in that first chapter, other than Naomie, there were no other actors in rehearsal. It was all real people. Even Janelle Monae had not acted at that point in her career. And then it was just about getting them comfortable with the process. Rather than get them to jump through 20 hoops and say things this way and do things that way, it was about trying to find the continuum where the character and the human being were one. And Alex Hibbert in particular got really good at the process of performing, of creating, and there was a different language to use with him than there was with Mahershala. But it wasn’t me tricking him into giving certain emotions or certain performances, it was working with an actor.
Breaking the pattern a bit — here’s an interview with the man behind the wonderful soundtrack. (If y’all own the DVD/BD, there’s an extra feature that also talks a bit about how the music was made, so check it out if you haven’t already.)
One of the things that I told Barry early on was, “Look, we got to spend time in New York together and as much as possible be in the same place.” Barry would fly to New York and we would spend days together in my studio just exploring things. Watching the movie, we would order in Shake Shack and we would just sit there and try music out in different places to a point where it’s like, “What if we did something there? What would it feel like? Or what if we didn’t? How does it feel? Or what if it was a totally different type of a thing? What if instead of a tone, what if it’s actually a pretty big piece there?” We would try those kinds of things. I would write stuff right in front of him.
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.
It’s great to finally read an interview with a black interviewer. It’s sad that it took me this long to get to one.
One thing that came up in a discussion between Rookie editors is that when you’re constantly being victimized, it can be easy, almost a reflex, to think of your story as comprised of those traumas. When Kevin asks Chiron, “Who are you?” Chiron looks taken aback, as though he feels like, “You know what I’ve been through! Why are you asking me this?!” But it’s not enough to be the sum of your traumas.
Exactly! It’s funny you said it as a reflex; whenever I think of a reflex, I think of it as a very sharp response. But life is a series of these very slow responses, these slow reactions that we don’t even realize we’re living or we’re enacting. In a certain way, with this character in particular, he is getting away from himself at a rate that he doesn’t recognize, and then by the time he does, he is unrecognizable to the people around him. That’s why I love that you mention that moment, because you’re right, Trevante [Rhodes] does give a great reaction. He even says, “Who me? I’m me. I ain’t tryna be nothing else.” [As though speaking to Chiron] “Well, but are you? I mean, look at you, look at you! You’re clearly trying to be something else!” Because of the way time passes in our lives we don’t realize we’re becoming other things before it’s too late. We don’t realize the world is creating all these microaggressions, all these passive ways to tell us, “a man walks this way, a man talks this way.” We don’t realize until it’s too late.
The questions are so incredibly on-point. This is probably my favorite interview of the lot, though the NPR one definitely does give it a run for its money (helped by its length).
Jharrel Jerome: Playing Kevin allowed me to realize that people can really be different on the inside, that there can be such an amazing person on the surface — so cool, so fly — but at the same time on the inside they can be really struggling.
It just makes me think, How many of my friends were like that? How many people was I hanging out with — seeing how bright and cool they were — who were really in pain on the inside? So doing Moonlight made me realize that we have so many layers. We’ll always have so many layers. It helped me look at people differently.
I’m just weirdly thrilled to see Jenkins mention a (really fantastic) Taiwanese filmmaker who inspired the structure of Moonlight. I probably shouldn’t be as surprised as I am — Hou Hsiao-Hsien is an iconic and excellent filmmaker. But, for all that he’s made several very critically acclaimed films, it’s still rare to see him mentioned outside of Asia. (And this is all notwithstanding Jenkins’s apparent love for Wong Kar-wai, which also makes me squeal, but a bit less loudly.)
So what you’re watching when you watch the [swimming] scene is me describing to Ali what the scene was about—which is a baptism—and this kid was being taught a lesson how to fend for himself as a storm is rolling in. It’s beautiful because yesterday I was doing press with Alex [Hibbert], who plays Little in the first story, and the woman from The New Yorker said, “Alex, where did you learn how to swim?” And he goes, “In the movie.” And she goes, “What?” He says, “Yeah. Ali taught me how to swim.” You’re literally watching this baptism of Mahershala Ali teaching this kid how to float and how to swim. Things like that you can plan for, but once you’re there it’s really about, “How can I best capture the essence of what I think this movie is about, and what this play was about, and what the inspiration for it was about, and the humanity of Mahershala and Alex against the duress of a fucking storm?”
Q: I read that you and Barry lived just blocks from each other in Liberty City, Miami, when you were younger. It almost sounds like fate. Was it important for you that he also understood the place?
A: I am a believer of intersection. I believe that paths connect and cross at a time that if you are aware, you can say yes to an opportunity that will change your trajectory. Be that fate, be that God … But I do believe that there’s something that magnetizes us to each other. It’s interesting, living that close in proximity and never knowing each other until almost 30-some-odd years later. How do you explain that to people? You know, we were literally in the same school, in the same spaces. And like he mentioned the other day, he grew up with this guy in the neighborhood and I was like, “Yeah, I know exactly who you’re talking about.” I wasn’t friends with that person, but literally I saw them almost every day that I went to school. Clearly we were seeing the same moon, and yet we just weren’t looking at each other.
And I think there’s something to be said once we got to this place, why this inherent trust happened. I didn’t feel like he was trying to uncomplicate the story. I felt like he was trying to make it so that he could share it with himself, so that he could get in it, but I never felt that he was trying to undo the complexity to make it simpler for anybody else but him. And that felt right to me. That felt like what a person coming into a world that they’re familiar with and have great respect for would do.
I’m not a fan of this style of interviewing transcription, in which the actual questions are left out. It feels like we’re missing a part of the context. But there’s some good stuff here, so.
I definitely think the movie has won more people over than it’s lost. This really lovely message came through yesterday. A person who just organizes a film group invited four people to go watch the film. Four went in, and three came out because one person walked out during the beach scene in the second story. And the comment was, She wasn’t ready. But the other three had discussed what they had seen. I have no problem with that. Because what normally happens is we’re so insulated in our bubbles that we’re never exposed to a different opinion, a different perspective. If this movie or any piece of art can get people to the point where they have to acknowledge that an alternate reality and alternate perspective exists, that’s productive. Maybe next time they’ll get a little bit farther into the film.
And there’s one take when Andre turns around and he’s next to the jukebox and he looks at [Trevante]. And I remember just being like, almost kind of feeling like a person—I was like, I’m watching this, but does he know he’s being recorded? Because it felt so personal. You know? And it felt so intimate. And I’m like, Oh my gosh I feel like I’m peeping in and spying on people having this real private moment. And it was just because their acting was so good. And so then as an editor, you’re working more [from the standpoint of] preservation. You know, trying to preserve these moments and these beats and these looks and these amazing camera movements and trying to combine them and make them reflect everything that Barry’s trying to say in this scene.
More will be added, eventually.