Realities of the World | 5 Life Lessons from Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins
The Oscar-nominated director on freedom, family, teaching, confidence and strength
It’s a weird job making people cry for a living, but that’s what director Barry Jenkins did with Moonlight, a heart-breaking film that follows three phases of Chiron’s life, through childhood difference, teenage bullying and adult emotional paralysis – all the result of growing up gay.
“I’m so close to it, I’m like, ‘People are crying, really?’” says Jenkins, a fresh, fit (he played American football at Florida State University) and focused 37-year-old, who worked closely on the project with Writer and Executive Producer, Tarell McCraney. Few films will make you so desperate to step into the screen and protect or hug the protagonist, who’s so palpably confused, lonely, angry and in pain – all emotions played out brilliantly differently, according to the three ages of the character (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes).
In a tough part of Florida, broken down by poverty, Chiron is struggling to survive the terrors of his schoolmate Terell and his cohorts, temper the toxicity of his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and fight his own internal confusion, but mercifully, he finds some solace in kindly drug-dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), his warm partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) and his funny school friend Kevin.
Moonlight has great specific significance for certain groups – especially black, LGBT and poor communities – but it’s also a smart study of how individual all of our lives, loves and battles really are, and what it is to be human. “With this film, I wasn’t trying to counter stereotypes – I was trying to present human beings in a truthful way. We’re going to have to keep telling stories and living our lives in a very truthful way and not allow anybody convince us that is necessary to anything otherwise,” says Jenkins, with a nod to the post-truths and #alternativefacts of the Trump administration.
Here Jenkins talks us through some of the film’s biggest themes and shows us what we’ve got to learn from his Oscar-nom’d movie.
“Certain people have more freedom than others, depending on where and how you grew up. Tarell and me were doing a joint interview together one day and one question was, “So what was your coming out like?” and he was like, “I didn’t get to come out.” He was like, “Some people grew up in a place where you don’t get to come out. You were pulled out.” He says, “I didn’t know I was a faggot until someone told me I was a faggot. I’d never heard the word before, but it was placed upon me, before I placed it upon myself.”
So I think this idea of having the freedom to decide who you are – not that it’s a luxury, but I do think in society, we all play a part in maybe taking some of those freedoms away. It could be as simple as seeing a boy throw a ball and someone saying, “Oh, you threw that ball like a girl.” And now the kid doesn’t have the freedom to throw the ball how they would normally throw the fucking ball because that has been associated with femininity or anti-boyness.”
“I’ve been talking about masculinity in the black community a lot, and the way I’ve been describing it is that black people came to America in bondage, under subjugation and slavery. Once slavery was abolished and freedom was gained, it was very important to project a show of strength. Masculinity was literally the difference between life and death. And so I think some of that rigidity – masculinity as an act of survival – has stayed.
Bringing this element of tenderness into the film is essential, because what happens is, as you’re creating this hard exterior out of survival, what you’re doing is, you’re almost subduing – whether you know it or not – these other elements of your personality, of your self, that are important for self-care. It functions in the film and in life too. Because of certain things that happen in the world, we do have to be hard. We go into the workplace and we have to fucking toughen up, because people take advantage of us if we don’t. We’re all trying not to lose ourselves in this defence of ourselves and by being hard.”
“One of the themes in the film is this performance of masculinity. I think externally, what we project to the world is very different to what we feel beneath the surface. And I do think that in some ways, Kevin is exuding this confidence externally, but maybe he’s just as fragile as Chiron. Chiron doesn’t have the strength, or the fortitude, or maybe just the charisma, to pretend as well as Kevin does.
This whole story Kevin tells in the hallway – we try to make it pretty clear that him fucking this girl in the stairwell is very clearly an absolute lie. But he performs the lie so convincingly that Chiron goes home and dreams about this fucking fantasy. Some kids can just perform these things in a certain way. And it’s what I love in the third embodiment of Kevin, he says, “I was never really worth shit. I never really did anything I wanted to do. It was all I could do to do what folks thought I should be doing. I never really was myself.””
“If you’re not getting a constant feedback, a constant guidance, some of those lessons can either not take hold, or they can go astray. In the outside world, amongst kids like Terell, Chiron is being told, “You ain’t shit”, basically. Teresa every now and then is, like, “Baby, you are the shit”. But if your mum or your aunt tells you, “You’re just as cool as anybody,” you’re like, “No, it’s your fucking mum telling you!” Whereas if you’re walking down the street and there are kids riding your ass the whole time…
Teresa and Juan try to give this kid nurturing in a way that’s not pedantic and which is genuine. What I love about Mahershala Ali’s performance is that even after he’s gone from the film, you still feel these echoes and the lessons he tried to instil. But the problem is, if you don’t have someone who’s constantly helping you to modulate things, then you coming into your voice can go astray.”
“Family isn’t only blood, and for me, the making of this film is the perfect example of that. Both the editors, the cinematographer and the producer are people I went to film school with. They’re not blood relatives, but that is my family. The fact we were all nominated [for Oscars], I don’t see the number of nominations, but the diversity amongst the family. So many people had to pitch in to make this film what it is, so the love that the Academy spread was great.
But the community Tarell and I grew up in was a very tough place. There were very dark times and people were very poor, but if you didn’t have something to eat, there was a family just around the block, just as poor, but maybe they had a little more – and you could always find some place to go. You would not starve. I think Teresa and Juan’s home is a stand-in for that. We wanted to dig deep and show the very dark things about this community, but also to show that there was kindness and there was a place to go, where this character could feel safe.”
Moonlight is in UK cinemas from 17th February