In 1980s Miami, the triple crisis of growing up black, gay and poor

November 4, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Based on a true story, the new movie “Moonlight” follows Chiron, a boy growing up black, gay and poor in 1980s Miami. The film documents Chiron’s identity struggle in three acts, featuring a different actor for each. It’s a landscape director Barry Jenkins knows well -- he grew up in the same neighborhood around that time. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Editor’s Note: In our segment, Tarell Alvin McCraney was misidentified as the screenwriter. McCraney created the story. Barry Jenkins wrote the screenplay in addition to directing the film.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A new movie opening this weekend is being widely hailed for its nuanced storytelling about sexual identity, race and upbringing.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with the filmmakers of “Moonlight.”

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a life we don’t often see portrayed in commercial films, a coming-of-age tale of love and anguish, a movie that’s garnered critical acclaim for the story it tells and the beauty and power of its telling.

In “Moonlight,” we watch Chiron growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami as the crack epidemic is taking hold in the 1980s. He is young, poor, black, and coming to terms with being gay, quietly and painfully wrestling with these identities.

The story is based on the life of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who first wrote it as a play and then the screenplay for the new film.

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY, Playwright, “Moonlight”: It’s a story that I still feel like I have to tell, but also that I have to explore and to understand.

I mean, it’s a story rooted in events in my own life that I’m trying to make sense of and make sense of the world out of. And I think, for me, I always am interested in trying to get a group of people to have the same conversation.

BARRY JENKINS, Director, “Moonlight”: So, Tarell and I grew up blocks from one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: Director Barry Jenkins, who also grew up poor in Liberty City at the same time, and with a mother fighting addiction, presents the story in three separate acts, using three different actors to play Chiron.

At the new Museum of African American History and Culture, where the film was recently screened, he told me he purposely kept the actors from watching one another.

BARRY JENKINS: One of the themes of the film for me is about the way society is shaping these young men from our communities, through positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement. This is what masculinity looks like. This is what it sounds like.

And so much time passes between each story that I feel like the world has shaped this character into a different person. So, I wanted to cast different people to play the same person, and I wanted them to be different.

JEFFREY BROWN: We watch Chiron grow through high school, tormented by bullies and his own insecurities, living with a mother, played by Naomie Harris, who sinks more and more into addiction.

ACTOR: What’s wrong?

ACTOR: Nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a young man who speaks more loudly in his looks and silences than in words.

BARRY JENKINS: The power of cinema is that we get to watch people, you know? And we get to watch people, like, in close-up.

And so, if there’s a scene on the stage, the audience can’t get right in an actor’s eyes. But in cinema, they can. And I think, because of that, because of the power of the feeling in a person’s eyes, you know, they can be doing — active. They can be less active, and yet revealing so much more.

I think of “Moonlight,” it’s like an iceberg film. You know the Hemingway phrase, you know, 10 percent is above water, and 90 percent is below? We flip it upside-down. You know, we want to show you that 90 percent below water, but it’s moving very, very slow.

You know, it’s a patient film. But the character is revealing himself by these terms and his expressions.

TREVANTE RHODES, “Chiron”: What you looking at me like that for?

ACTOR: What, man? Come on, you just drove down here?


JEFFREY BROWN: The adult Chiron is played by Trevante Rhodes, a one-time track and field star at the University of Texas who only found his way into acting his senior year.

TREVANTE RHODES: I think the beauty of that scene was Chiron, he didn’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: An outgoing and gregarious man, he told me how he approached playing a character so different.

TREVANTE RHODES: So, for me, it was really just about walking around L.A. with the three weeks I had prior to filming feeling as if — feeling as if I had a secret to hide from everyone?

JEFFREY BROWN: You were walking around feeling and getting into the character.

TREVANTE RHODES: Walking around L.A., getting in the character, walking around, feeling as if I had this secret, feeling as if I connected with someone. They would be able to see through me. They would be able to see my insecurities. They would be able to see this mask that I was putting up.

They would be able to see all of these things, and they would take the power away from me, feeling as if I couldn’t love myself, because Chiron had this self-hate. And because of that, he couldn’t love others.

So, I feel that all of us really relate to Chiron in the sense that we all, at some point, are insecure about something in our life, you know? And I’m someone who I try to make sense of everything, and I feel like Chiron tends to do the same thing, just in a different way. The context is a bit different.

ACTOR: And who is you?

ACTOR: Nobody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another compelling character is Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, a drug dealer stepping in as a father figure to the young Chiron.

ACTOR: Some boys chased him in the cut. He’s scared more than anything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Juan was based on someone McCraney knew as a child.

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: It often pains me to know that people sort of see him, and go, oh, that’s unusual.

When I think — when I think back over my life, I think, oh, but there have been many times I have run into many people like him who are reflections of him in my mind. And I hear other people go, no, I had a person in my life like that, too.

So, I keep thinking, well, what are we doing? Why are we silencing that story? Why — what is happening to us that we’re not seeing him more often?

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you feel this is a film that could have been made five years ago, 10 years ago?

BARRY JENKINS: I mean, the one thing I can stand up on is, I couldn’t have made it five years ago or 10 years ago. I don’t think I was intellectually or emotionally capable at that point. I mean, he had written the piece.

But I don’t know how many people you had shared it with.

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: I’m shaking my head because I had it 10 years ago, and it didn’t get made.

BARRY JENKINS: I do think that, right now, there’s a time in this country when I think people, they want to see beyond the barriers of their own experience, you know?

And I think that this country is a place where many voices are being sought. I think the voice of this character is one in particular that people haven’t heard very often. And they’re curious.

And then they go and they see the film, and they go, that voice is kind of similar to mine. I kind of relate to this guy, even though I don’t want to sit next to him on the subway. Maybe I will next time.

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: And now I think we’re in a moment where everyone has to understand that authenticity is key, because, when you come to the table truthfully, then we can kind of — we see that there’s actually — we illuminate that there’s actually more room for voices, rather than that just one voice that we heard previous.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Moonlight” is opening around the country this weekend.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.