Moonlight filmmakers talk shooting beauty of Miami and connecting with material on human level

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Miami is a city cursed by prejudice. We can thank “Miami Vice” for some of it as well as a too many New York writers visiting for the city and formulating stories that are supposed to be comprehensive based on limited experiences. In the past, Independent Ethos has written about local filmmakers who have striven to show a different side of the city, but they have usually remained as obscure as their stories. However, the buzz around Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight seems to show we may have a movie that is grounded strongly in the real world of Miami and is creating waves with film critics from all over, including us (Moonlight heightens intimacy with exquisitely tempered cinematic technique — a film review).

The film is focused on the lives of young black men growing up in a specific part of Miami, a downtrodden, mostly African-American neighborhood called Liberty City. Both Jenkins and Tarell McCraney, the author of the story his script is based on, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” grew up there. Moonlight is a personal story about a gay character growing up in a hyper-masculine world with a struggling, drug-addled single mother as his only support. From this gritty, personal story a bigger picture reveals the pitfalls of expectations of what it means to be masculine in a neighborhood that has little sympathy for any sign of divergence from masculinity.

Tarell Alvin McCraney attends "MOONLIGHT" Cast & Crew Hometown Premiere in Miami (Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for A24)
Tarell Alvin McCraney attends “MOONLIGHT” Cast & Crew Hometown Premiere in Miami (Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for A24)

During a recent press tour visit in Miami, Jenkins, McCraney and two of the actors who play the film’s lead, Chiron, at different stages of his life, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, spoke about capturing Miami in a manner that keeps it honest as a sense of place. They also talked about doing justice to a gay man’s personal story as heterosexual men and all the complexity that comes from a place whose definition of what it means to be a man is forced upon one’s identity.

When asked about the challenges of capturing Miami on screen, Jenkins says, “It was really important to me how a film looks, and with this one, from the very beginning, I saw shiny people, and I saw really bright light because, you know, I got this question on a panel for the ‘Atlantic’ and the question was like: Were you ever afraid you were making a movie that was too beautiful because the subject matter was too heavy? And I was like, Miami is a beautiful place. I remember green grass and really bright light, and to have tried to remove those things in service of a dark story would have been immoral almost.”

Jenkins notes that some of the challenges came in technical aspects of how the film looked and finding balance to the story’s scenes of confrontation while staying true the city’s natural bright skies. “One of my favorite scenes to color correct was in scene two, in Liberty Square, in Pork and Beans, when Naomie [Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother] was saying, ‘But I’m your mama.’ That was so difficult because the pastels in the Pork and Beans, it was just … it was almost like, at that point it was immoral because Barry has made like Pleasantville this raging scene of addiction. We had to work and work and fight to get to a natural level of beauty because it was just like, gorgeous, just gorgeous, but that’s Miami.”

McCraney understands this because he has lived such ironic moments growing up in Liberty City. He says of growing up there, “It’s a beautiful nightmare … I remember we wouldn’t have any power because my mom didn’t pay the bill and was out somewhere, and it was just me and my brothers and sisters, but I remember when the sun came up, it became pink in our house, and it was so beautiful. You would just watch the pink burst through the windows, but it was only because we didn’t have any light, so those two things happen at the same time, and you can’t not tell that story.”

This is but the surface of the vision of these collaborators. There’s further complexity in transmitting the perils of the milieu both grew up in. As a young boy, played by Alex R. Hibbert, Chiron’s only father figure becomes Juan (Mahershala Ali), the very dealer who sells drugs to Chiron’s mother. It is Juan who comes to the boy’s aid after he is chased into an abandoned building and who later teaches the boy how to swim.

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Rhodes plays the grown up version of Chiron, after he becomes a drug dealer in Atlanta. He says of the boy’s relationship with Juan, “I think his best role model was this person that was the best view of humanity he saw. Nobody else gave a shit about him but that person did, and so to be the best person you can be, you assume the role of the best person you know.”

“There’s not much choice in that milieu, is there?” notes Jenkins.

“No, not at all,” adds McCraney.

This agreement speaks to a shared life that transcends gender identification. All four balk at the idea that straight people cannot justly transmit a gay man’s story. For them it’s about focusing on an individual and finding commonalities before looking at differences. McCraney goes back to emphasizing that his story is based on a very specific world, and it is in that shared experience where the storytelling honestly begins.

“This is not every gay person’s story, or every gay person in the ‘hood’s story,” the writer says. “This is my story specifically, and no, the ‘hood isn’t more homophobic than any other place, and we find our pockets of homophobia when we find them. I just happen to be in a situation where a confluence of things were happening.”

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Moonlight was me trying to talk about me being a person and manhood in general, and so I couldn’t leave that portion of the story out if I tried,” he continues. “At the same time, I know that that’s not the same experience — I mean there were people that lived two blocks down from me who were gay or came out or who were picking on me and were bullies in the same school we were shooting this stuff, and I’d go to the club, and I’m like, Welcome! Here we are. Ain’t this some shit.”

Everybody laughs at this, as the complexity of life is recognized as something that indeed exists beyond the film.

Jenkins says the key to the film’s authenticity starts with McCraney’s voice. “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with doing this if it didn’t originate with someone who identified at the core with that aspect of the character’s identity,” he says. “I don’t think I could have written this thing without Tarell, and there’s a couple of key scenes and moments that I really went to the ends of the earth to preserve Tarell’s voice because it just came from first person experience that I didn’t have.”

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The director does note that it was key that story originated from McCraney, who lived the experience and all the complex feelings that the film so eloquently transmits. “I think representation is important,” says Jenkins, “and there are certain things I don’t think a man can communicate, you know, of a woman’s story in a certain way.”

Sanders brings it back to personal experience when he talks about relating the material. He too finds a personal link to the story, but it has nothing to do with gender identity. “For me, what’s crazy is, I’ve been dealing with drug addiction with my mother my entire life, and my mom had actually relapsed the summer that I auditioned for this, so reading the script, immediately I was like, ‘Damn, this is gonna be therapy for me if I take this part.’”

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What also drew Sanders to the material was a familiarity with McCraney’s work. “Having read Tarell McCraney’s scripts before and actually doing his scene work in school — I was at De Paul University at the time — I was working on his plays, and now I have this script sitting in front of me, also growing up being bullied as well. Those three key things for me made me want to embody this character, and it was a very therapeutic experience for me to film this.”

Finally, Rhodes says, playing a character with a different gender identity comes with the territory of acting. “For me in regards to being a heterosexual man portraying a homosexual man — obviously you get asked that a lot: How was it being a guy who loves a guy? That’s always the most unique question. I don’t feel like there’s a difference. How is there a difference, you know what I mean? I would be the same exact person if I were attracted to men, and so I always get confused about that question.”

Hans Morgenstern

Moonlight runs 110 minutes and is rated R (but nothing so terrible that young teens can’t handle). It opens in our South Florida area this Friday, Oct. 28, in the indie art house O Cinema Wynwood where McCraney will be participate in a post-film discussion after the 7pm screenings on Friday & Saturday (the screenings are SOLD OUT, however). Friday, Independent Ethos contributor Juan Barquin will host the session and on Saturday it will be Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez’s turn. The film is also at Regal South Beach and AMC Aventura Mall. Just added: Alternatively on Saturday, Barquin hosts a Q&A with McCraney at the Regal South beach at 8:30 p.m. The film will be expanding into West Palm Beach/Boca Raton and nationwide next Friday, Nov. 4. For update theaters and locations, visit this link.  A24 provided all images used in this post, except where noted, and invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this interview.

(Copyright 2016 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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