Barry Jenkins' sophomore feature (and 2016 TIFF selection) Moonlight is rightly being lauded as one of the year's strongest films. The drama follows the story of a young man through three different time periods, exploring notions of gender, sexuality and the African American identity in the process. It's at once familiar and entirely fresh as it ditches stereotypes to cast new light on topics that we've seen before.
By taking an open-minded look at a specific subset of society, Moonlight feels like a film with a message. For Jenkins, however, his ambitions were simply set on the story. "For me, the only thing I hope is to get the characters right," he said during an interview at TIFF. "I try to have tunnel vision about all of this…. From there it goes outward and outward. The more people see the film, they sort of take possession of it. If they see a lot of themselves in it, that's amazing."
Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, but Jenkins explains that he related to the text on a personal level. "These characters could not have originated with me, but with Tarell's voice and blessing I felt comfortable taking those characters and expanding them and putting them into my voice and then merging my worldview with Tarell's," Jenkins said. "It's funny, people keep saying — these are characters that we don't see very often. Well, I saw them every damn day where I grew up."
Jenkins wasn't the only one with a personal connection to the piece. Moonlight is the acting debut of musician Janelle Monáe, who offers a scene-stealing, breakthrough performance. In auditioning for the role, she drew on her own personal experiences to read lines with Jenkins.
"When Janelle and I talked to the character, I didn't have anything to watch that Janelle had done before, and we talked about her family," Jenkins recalls. "Then we started rewriting lines in the script based on conversations we had about her family. I think it was really organic."
Monáe agrees. "We know these people," she says. "Thanks to Barry and Tarell having such an artistic mind… they shed the moonlight on it and it's entirely different. We see them as human beings with nuances. So when I read and I was reading the script, I cried three times and realized while I was crying it was because I knew these people.
"I pulled from my experiences," she continues. "We know these people, but their stories have not been highlighted in a way that was, I felt, as smart as what Barry was doing."
What Barry was doing, he reiterates, was attempting to portray his characters in a humanized and believable light. "Really for Tarell and I, it was just about doing justice to the voice of the men that grew up in our neighbourhood," he says. "As Tarell and I used to say, we live in a world that brings black boys up hard, you know? [We were] just trying to get that onscreen in a responsible, tactful way. So I think if you saw those things in the piece, I'm proud that it came across."
"The thing for me is, if only people from the world of these characters can see this film and empathize, then I've failed," he continues. "I think it's about people who don't see themselves in this film being able to see these characters and empathize."
Moonlight opens today (October 28) in Toronto. It expands to Montreal and Vancouver on November 4 and Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Victoria on November 11.