It's a typical story, one that legions of independent filmmakers have experienced since the dawn of Sundance. You pore your energies into making your debut movie – in Barry Jenkins' case, it was Medicine for Melancholy, his 2008 lo-fi romantic comedy in which a San Francisco bike messenger and a boho young woman spend a day hanging out. Your film travels the festival circuit, you win an award or two, and after the victory lap, you start thinking about what comes next. You go to Hollywood, where you work on a project that teaches you the studio ropes but leaves you with little to show for your efforts. You adapt a memoir that you have the rights to, and that goes nowhere as well. Time marches on. You wonder if your moment has permanently passed.
"Around year five of this period," the 36-year-old director says, "I just sort of threw in the towel. I thought, I should just go home. Maybe I'll teach." Even though he's recounting this story at the Toronto Film Festival, Jenkins still gets a temporary thousand-yard stare as he goes back to that particularly low moment. Once he returned to Oakland, an old film-school friend – producer Adele Romanski – called him up and gave him the tough-love treatment. "It went something like, 'You need to make a fucking film!'" he recalls. "'This is bullshit. What's going on? You need to get some ideas going.' This went on for a few months. It was only later that I remembered something that some friends had sent me."
Three years, two countries, several drafts and countless Skype calls later, his second movie Moonlight, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today, doesn't just represent Jenkins' return to the screen or his successful beating of the dreaded sophomore slump. His highly cinematic story of a kid named Chiron going from bullied kid to tormented gay adolescent to emotionally closed-off adult, as told in three distinct acts, feels like a landmark. A mix of highly personal storytelling, embedded social commentary, familiar characters turned inside out (the drug-dealer mentor, the crack-addicted mother, the conflicted coming-out-of-the-closet teen) and some of the most gorgeous, expressive visuals this side of a Wong Kar-wai flick, Jenkins' drama feels as if it's breaking apart the coming-of-age template and rebuilding into it something unique. "Is this the year's best movie?" asked New York Times critic A.O. Scott in his review. The truth is that Moonlight would probably be the best movie of any year in which it came out.
Long before he'd premiere the film at Telluride and Toronto festivals to rousing standing ovations, however, Jenkins had to work through a crushing sense of self-defeat. He and Romanski would video-chat a few times a month – "originally it was like therapy, then it was more like brainstorming" – and she asked him if he kept a list of things he wanted to make. He did, in fact, and near the top of it was a semi-autobiographical theater piece by Tarell Alvin McRaney, titled in In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Some guys from the Borscht arts collective in Miami, where both the filmmaker and McRaney were raised, had passed it to Jenkins right after Melancholy had come out, thinking that he'd respond to the story of a young boy negotiating a tough childhood. He reached out to the playwright.
"After the very first conversation with Tarell," Jenkins says, "I realized that, holy shit, we were in a lot of the same places, knew a lot of the same streets, had a very similar experience growing up. What grabbed me was the way the guys talked to each other – and the way they didn't talk to each other." A chord was struck. McRaney gave his blessing. Jenkins went to Brussels to start writing.
The first thing that he proceeded to do was reformat the play's structure into three sections, each of which concentrated on Chiron during a different age and phase. ("Thank God I hadn't seen Boyhood when I was writing this," he jokes. "I'd already had Melancholy come out right on the heels of Before Sunset, so I might have just stopped.") When it came time to cast, the director had toyed with the idea of casting three actors that bore a strong resemblance to each other, before remembering a book he'd come across when studying to become a filmmaker. "Have you ever read Walter Murch's In the Blink of an Eye?" he asks. "I kept thinking that if I found actors who had the same kind of eyes – enough that when you saw the older actor, you could see the kid from the first part in there – I knew that we could make it work." Ashton Sanders, who plays the teenage Chiron, was cast first; Trevante Rhodes, who plays the adult incarnation known as "Black," came second; and 10-year-old Alex Hibbert, who played the aptly nicknamed "Little" version, was the last person cast in the film. If you see the poster, which blends the three faces together, you understand why Jenkins' decision: six eyes, one soul.
Jenkins also was intent on keeping the homosexual aspects of McRaney's play intact – "It's not part of my story," he says in reference to film's sexual identity issues, "but this is as much McRaney's story as mine, and I wanted to honor that" – as he was to avoid the look of typical inner-city, at-risk youth story. Hence Moonlight's palette of vibrant blues, bruised purples and golden browns, with the occasional neon-pastel flourish. "Even though my childhood was dark, you can't say it was visually repressive," the director admits. "Miami is the exact opposite of that. It's a place where you could choose to go to the beach if you want; it can be a very lush place. We knew we didn't want to make a gritty, neo-realist urban tale about growing up in the hood. My life growing up in the hood was not miserablist. It still felt beautiful."
"But it's also the kind of place," he quickly adds, "that you can walk up the beach, everything is idyllic – and then 10 minutes later, a massive storm rolls in. I'd say it was a metaphor for the city, but that's also exactly what happened when we were filming the swimming scene."
That scene, in which the local drug dealer/Little's father figure Juan (played by Luke Cage's Mahershala Ali), takes the boy into the ocean, became one that both Jenkins and the actor cite as key to the movie as a whole. "We called it the baptism scene," Ali says several weeks later, calling in from his house in the Bay Area. "It's where you see Chiron learn he can trust this man, and where this dealer proves he can be tender and nurturing. I knew guys like that growing up: People who weren't all good or all bad. They just made bad choices." The sequence also took on a real-life resonance that Ali didn't know about it until after the movie had premiered. "We were at a press conference and Alex said, 'Yeah, that's where I learned how to swim, doing that scene.' I was actually teaching him how to swim and didn't even know it!"
It's also one of the few sequences in the movie – besides a dinner table conversation in which Juan and his girlfriend (singer Janelle Monáe) compassionately explain why "faggot" is a hateful term – where Chiron feels he's in a safe enough space to let his guard down. For most of the movie, the character is putting up a stoic front out of necessity; and by the time we meet the adult "Black," all prison muscles and gold fronts, it's like he's dressed in a costume of black masculinity – a tough-guy drag.
"Yeah, it's a performance," Jenkins agrees, "but so much of masculinity is. I realized in the making of this movie, that we were reflecting what can influence a young black man, or a young black man from a poor neighborhood, or a young black man from the poor neighborhood that Tarell and I grew up in.
"I kept thinking about the incident that involved Mike Brown," he continues, referring to the shooting of an 18-year-old that turned the nation's attention to Ferguson, Missouri. "The conversation revolved around his characteristics as opposed to what happened to him. The same thing with Eric Garner, same thing with [John] Crawford in Ohio. As a black man, you're either creating this performance or it's being projected on to you."
Before Jenkins gets ready to get up and enjoy the rest of the afternoon, he stops to mention the movie's penultimate scene – which, without spoiling anything, involves Chiron seeking out his old best friend Kevin (played by The Knick's André Holland) and offers up the single most quiet, yet emotionally devastating, image viewers are likely to see this year. "A lot of people have asked about that moment," he says. "I wouldn't say it's hopeful, but ... there's a sense of healing to it. And I feel like audiences, if they've been seeing these characters – really seeing them – they understand why that moment is so hard-won.
"Sometimes it takes eight years to get there," Jenkins says, walking to the door of his hotel room, "and sometimes it takes a lifetime."