Moonlight is a commanding gay, black coming of age drama that speaks to everyone

“The title Moonlight refers to shining light in the darkness or illuminating things you’re afraid to show. Everybody in life has had a struggle like Chiron’s at some point, whether it’s for a short period of time or an entire lifetime. Anyone who insists they haven’t put up a façade is living in some kind of darkness.”

Moonlight is a consummate masterwork from writer-director Barry Jenkins that takes you on an emotional journey into the heart and soul of humanity and will live in your heart forever.

If you have a true life story that reflects the uniqueness of your culture, why not write the screenplay that can be turned into a film?  Our celebrated The Write Journey course will take your idea from page to screen. Take the first step in the write direction!

20151116_015419_Moonlight_D25_0375.tif

André Holland and Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight. “Black is thrown a lifeline by the one person he’s allowed himself to be intimate with, and through André’s soulfulness, he attains a kind of freedom. Kevin is saying to his old friend, I’m not going to push you, I’m not going to force you, I’m just going to offer you this light…”

An unforgettable and not-to-be missed drama at the intersection of race, sexuality, masculinity, identity, family, and love, the film arrives eight years after Jenkins’ critically acclaimed romance Medicine For Melancholy, bringing audiences a  deeply felt cinematic swoon, following one young man’s tumultuous coming age in South Florida over the course of two decades.

One of the most powerful aspects of Moonlight is that it was conceived in cinematic form by a straight man working from material rooted in the personal experiences of an openly gay man

Featuring a trio of gifted actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) inhabiting a single character during three phases of his life, it tells the story of one young man’s coming of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.

As Chiron grows from an uncertain and tentative boy into a bullied teenager grappling with his sexuality and finally into a grown man, Jenkins skillfully shows through three distinct chapters a life in full, revealing how the powerful moments in each of our lives coalesce to shape our identities and define our fates.

tarell

Taryn Alvin McCraney is best known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, which include The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet. Other plays include Head of Passes, Choir Boy, and Wig Out! Tarell is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, the Whiting Award, Steinberg Playwright Award, the Evening Standard Award, the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, the Windham Campbell Award, and a Doris Duke Artist Award. He was the International Writer-in-Residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2008-2010, and a former resident playwright at New Dramatists. He is an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and a member of Teo Castellanos/D-Projects in Miami. Tarell is a graduate of the New World School of the Arts, the Theatre School at DePaul University, and the Yale School of Drama, and he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick. He recently joined the University of Miami as Professor of Theatre and Civic Engagement as part of a three-year program, in partnership with UM, Miami-Dade County and the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center.

After reading Jenkins’ adaptation, producer Adele Romanski was immediately captivated by the script’s highly emotional take on coming of age under fire.

Although Moonlight is set in a very specific place, its themes apply to anyone who has ever felt out of place in the world.

“The script broke my heart,” Romanski shares. “Chiron’s story was something I could identify with even as a white female. A lot of people across race, gender, age, and sexuality can identify with feeling ‘other.’ While Moonlight is in essence a gay, black coming of age drama, the core of its story is the universality of its otherness.”

One of the most powerful aspects of Moonlight is that it was conceived in cinematic form by a straight man working from material rooted in the personal experiences of an openly gay man — yet the film’s sexuality is not its centerpiece or defining feature, owing to Jenkins’ penchant for subtlety and introspection over telegraphed moments or sermonizing. Ultimately, Moonlight transcends labels and definitions, telling a universal story through one young man’s cathartic personal struggles. “Barry is a very introverted and private person,” Romanski explains. “He doesn’t show much of himself outside a core group of people he trusts. Moonlight allowed him to tell a story that is unique to his own upbringing and history — yet he was able to access it through an adapted work that was Tarell’s story.”

Producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner were deeply moved by what they read. “The writing was incredibly beautiful and like its predecessor possessed a notable elegance and simplicity in its structure,” Kleiner shares. “Barry has the remarkable ability to create and capture intimate spaces between characters — specifically two characters. He penetrates interior emotional states in a way you don’t see coming and suddenly you’re in the depths of the human heart.” Adds Gardner: “Barry is someone who believes that whole worlds collide in the space of one conversation. It takes a skillful writer-director to bring that alive on the screen.” Plan B signed on shortly after reading, and financing on Moonlight was completed in early 2015, when A24 made their first foray into production and got behind the project.

The journey begins

In 2013, Romanski (Morris From America, The Myth Of The American Sleepover) was helping Jenkins sift through feature film projects for his eagerly anticipated follow-up to Medicine For Melancholy. The duo, friends since college, began holding bi-weekly meetings where they volleyed ideas back and forth until a dozen solid ideas took shape. One of them was McCraney’s evocation of his own Miami youth, which had fallen into Jenkins’ hands through a Borscht collective member. “Tarell did a great job of capturing what it felt like to be a poor black kid growing up in the Miami projects,” Jenkins explains. “I saw it as an opportunity to get some of my own childhood memories out of my head and onto the screen, filtered through Tarell’s wonderful voice. The root of his experience was also the root of my experience — it was the perfect marriage.”

By coincidence Jenkins came of age in the same rough and tumble Liberty City housing projects where McCraney grew up, and where much of Moonlight the film unfolds. He also contributed work to the Borscht Film Festival — Jenkins’ 2013 short film “Chlorophyl” was a sprawling 17-minute evocation of his native Miami emphasizing changes wrought through urban renewal. The short film incorporated some of the same themes as Medicine For Melancholy, including displacement, gentrification and yearning for love and connection amid urban anomie.

Jenkins and McCraney did not know each other as children but their formative years were remarkably similar. They attended the same elementary and middle schools (despite a difference in age) and both went on to become artists, treating subjects and themes close to their own experiences, including themes of identity and masculinity. Most notably, both grew up in households in which their mothers grappled with severe drug addiction. Jenkins’ mother survived her battle and has remained HIV positive for 24 years, while McCraney’s mother ultimately succumbed from AIDS as a result of her struggles.

20151018_Moonlight_D05_C1_MG_0173.tif

Barry Jenkins was born and raised in Miami, FL. After graduating from Florida State University with a BA in English and a BFA in Film, he relocated to Los Angeles where he worked as an assistant to director Darnell Martin on Harpo Films’ Their Eyes Were Watching God. His feature film debut, Medicine For Melancholy, was released in theaters by IFC Films and hailed as one of the best films of 2009 by A.O. Scott of The New York Times. In 2010, Jenkins co-founded the commercial collective Strike Anywhere Films. A nominee for several Spirit and Gotham Awards, Jenkins’ recent work includes a screen adaptation for Overbrook Films and staff writing on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” In addition to being a curator and presenter at the Telluride Film Festival, he is a United States Artists Smith Fellow and was recently named one of the “20 Directors to Watch” in world cinema by The New York Times. MOONLIGHT is his second feature film.

Adapting Moonlight

For his adaptation, Jenkins set about broadening the story’s three chapters, expanding on an adult interlude in Chiron’s life that was a mere phone call in McCraney’s source material, and giving equal shrift to three distinct eras in his young protagonist’s journey from childhood to adulthood.

McCraney’s original piece was rooted in the relationship between a young Liberty City boy and a local drug dealer, who becomes a kind of surrogate father as the boy contends with bullying, his mother’s addiction, and a pervasive feeling of loneliness and otherness that ultimately ends in tragedy. Jumping back and forth between youth and adolescence, yet deeply rooted in themes of masculinity, identity, and community, the non-linear “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” examined the burgeoning gay sexuality of its protagonist Chiron coming of age in a challenging milieu. “It was important to me to show from the beginning how the community is active in Chiron’s life,” McCraney says. “The community knows things about him before he knows them about himself. People want to place him in a category before he even understands what that means. This happens to all of us, whether we’re male, female, black, white, straight or gay. There are moments when our community decides to tell us what they see us as. How we respond to that makes our struggle very real, and deeply influences how our lives unfold.”

Casting the film

Casting Moonlight began with Jenkins’ bold decision to show Chiron’s progression during various stages of his young life beginning at age ten and extending into his early 30s, without aging a single actor through the course of the film’s three chapters. This considerable challenge required the casting team to find three distinct actors who could convey the same inner feeling across multiple years without ever meeting during the course of filming.

20151022_Moonlight_D07_C1_K1_0413.tif

Alex Hibbert

Moonlight opens with Chiron (Alex Hibbert) at age 10 (nicknamed Little in the movie), fleeing from bullies in his housing project until he is rescued by the drug dealer Juan, who becomes his mentor and unofficial guardian with the help of his saintly girlfriend Teresa. In the second chapter, Chiron grapples with young love in the form of his teenage schoolmate Kevin, the declining state of his mother Paula and a traumatic schoolyard incident that changes the course of his life. The third chapter follows Chiron in adulthood — now known by his street name Black — contending with the thwarted love that has hindered his identity through his inability to express his feelings. In a virtuoso sequence set in a Miami diner, Chiron reunites with Kevin in a thoroughly unforgettable and unexpected way.

20151024_Moonlight_D09_C1_K1_0878.tif

Ashton Sanders

For Chiron at age 16, Ramirez scouted teenagers all over the country, reviewing audition tapes and headshots and scanning the Internet for video clips of students who were graduating from high school performing arts programs. In the end the filmmakers chose Ashton Sanders, who Ramirez first discovered during one of her numerous Los Angeles casting sessions. Sanders had appeared in a previous independent film and had a brief role in Straight Outta Compton, but he stood out for his stillness and impassivity, crucial attributes for Chiron in the film’s second chapter.

 

Trevante Rhodes, a former track and field star from Louisiana who was discovered by a casting agent on his Texas college campus and immediately cast in a Nicolas Cage film, had originally read for the role of the adult Kevin in the film’s evocative third chapter. But his reading was interrupted by the casting team, including Ramirez, Jenkins and

Trevante Rhodes

Romanski, the common thread that pulled the three different stages together, which was an intense vulnerability. Each actor could express it in his eyes, helping to create a complete picture of this character’s life.” Adds Jenkins: “You don’t see black males on screen where they’re just allowed to emote instead of talking or being active all the time. All three actors were great at emoting.”

For Rhodes, the biggest challenge inhabiting Chiron as an adult came in staying true to the character’s deeply concealed emotional core despite physical “armor” like muscles and grills, and a decidedly opaque street name. “Black is an introverted, troubled man who is hiding his true self from the world because he’s frightened of letting people know who he really is,” explains Rhodes.

“The title Moonlight refers to shining light in the darkness or illuminating things you’re afraid to show. Everybody in life has had a struggle like Chiron’s at some point, whether it’s for a short period of time or an entire lifetime. Anyone who insists they haven’t put up a façade is living in some kind of darkness.”

At its heart, Moonlight is a story about masculinity and how it’s expressed in a specific community like the Liberty City housing project in Miami, where much of the movie was filmed. In this milieu, criminal life routinely overlaps with everyday domestic life and paternal figures come to take on the ambiguous qualities of provider and supplier.

20151018_Moonlight_D05_C1_MG_0302.tif

Mahershala Ali

In the case of Juan, the local drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing while quietly supplying his mother with crack cocaine, the role required an actor who appeared ferocious on the surface but harbored kindness and nurturing underneath.

“There are so many different layers to a character like Juan,” Jenkins explains. “I’m examining black masculinity in this movie, but on a deeper level I’m exploring inner city impoverished black masculinity. We needed someone who could be menacing one moment and extremely caring the next.”

The filmmakers found their Juan in the Oakland-born stage and screen actor Mahershala Ali, whose most visible role to date is playing the lobbyist and former press secretary Remy Danton on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” and whose other works include this year’s Free State Of Jones, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and Netflix’s forthcoming “Marvel’s Luke Cage” series. Romanski had just finished working with Ali on another production, Justin Tipping’s KICKS, and had been deeply impressed with his work; while filming she thought of him for the role of Juan, and mentioned to him she had a project she was hoping to share with him as soon as it was ready.

In a brief yet astonishing performance, Ali in the guise of Juan imparts valuable information to Chiron that helps him survive inside and out through the years — until he comes to embody a version of Juan in his adult life. “He’s the father figure to Little, which is important because you want to feel like Little has someone guiding him through life,” Ramirez explains. “There’s also this dangerous level to Juan, which isn’t what you associate with paternal figures. Mahershala is a very intense, emotional actor, but he also has this ability to comfort.”

20151113_202708_Moonlight_D23_0334.tif

André Holland

Showing a different side of masculinity in the quietly explosive third chapter of Moonlight is the actor André Holland (“The Knick,” Selma, 42), whose luminous and serene performance as the adult Kevin brings a sense of comfort and ease that ultimately helps Chiron emerge from his shell. Early in the casting process Holland — who has appeared in several of McCraney’s plays, including the Brother/Sister trilogy — was considered for the role of Juan. But the multi-faceted stage and screen actor submitted an audition tape as Kevin that reduced the casting team to tears, making it instantly clear where the performer’s strengths were best utilized. “André is so comfortable in his skin as an actor, signaling a way out for Chiron through his openness and giving nature,” Jenkins explains.

 

“Black is thrown a lifeline by the one person he’s allowed himself to be intimate with, and through André’s soulfulness, he attains a kind of freedom. Kevin is saying to his old friend, I’m not going to push you, I’m not going to force you, I’m just going to offer you this light…”

The last of the male actors to be cast in Moonlight proved to be the most difficult, owing to the frank sexuality depicted in the film’s second chapter between teenage friends Kevin — who is more experienced — and Chiron, who is only beginning to grapple with his sexuality. Ramirez auditioned hundreds of actors for the promiscuous, freewheeling Kevin, considering rappers, musicians, up-and-coming actors and non-professionals alike, with no Kevin in sight. Nearing production, in a state of desperation, she turned to the Internet and found upstart actor Jharrel Jerome in the theater program of LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York City, where he was just graduating. “A lot of great actors come out of that school and he had already turned 18,” Ramirez explains. “It was a relief to find someone we really liked instead of having to settle.”

Ultimately, Moonlight is a universal story of love, family and reconciliation, which through its electrifying atmosphere comes to liberate anyone who has ever felt distinct or apart, or has felt trapped inside their own emotions, yearning for change. Sums up Jenkins: “This is an immersive, experiential film in which characters over time negotiate what they will allow themselves to feel. What they project back to the world with those feelings becomes the universal process of claiming one’s identity. It’s amazing to watch someone yearn for something internally but not have the courage to express it.” Moonlight is an expression of that yearning.