Moonlight becomes him
by Gregg Shapiro
Written and directed by Miami native Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is based on a short play by gay playwright and Miami native Tarell McCraney. Presented in three separate chapters, Moonlight tells the heart-rending story of Chiron, as a child, a teen and an adult, growing up in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. The three actors – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are exceptional, and the supporting cast, including Mahershala Ali (drug kingpin Juan), Janelle Monae (Juan's girlfriend Teresa), Naomie Harris (Chiron's mother Paula) and André Holland (the adult Kevin, the love of Chiron's life), are all outstanding. That sound you hear? That's the well-deserved Oscar buzz about Moonlight . I spoke with Tarell McCraney about the movie in October.
Gregg Shapiro: Congratulations on the reception that Moonlight has received.
Tarell McCraney: Thank you. I don't think any of us expected the response we're getting, to be honest. A lot of this has been a passion project. I wrote the original script as something that was more of a personal exploration. I think [director] Barry [Jenkins] got involved because he could personally see himself there and wanted to tell a story about Liberty City. We didn't think past just doing that. I think people are responding to that personal passion. Clearly, it resonates with other people.
What was the process of adapting your short play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue for the movie?
The original piece that was sent to Barry was a script I had been playing with since 2003. I was trying to figure out whether I could turn it into a limited series or something. We were both working with a group called the Borscht Film Festival here in Miami, mostly underground and indie films and shorts. It was a little longer than they could use; so they put it away. Then they put the Moonlight script in Barry's hands. He looked at it and thought he could do something with it. I gave him permission to do it.
Was there back-and-forth collaboration on the screenplay?
Not really, in terms of a lot of back-and-forth. He did send me the script when he finished it. Once he started working on it, it was fairly swift. He had captured so much of the original piece. I had to go back and reread the original, and I was like, "Oh, yeah, there's so much of it in there."
As a playwright, you have worked with a variety of directors, gay and straight. Barry happens to be straight. What was it like working with him on Moonlight?
We work with the straights often! We have to work with them. One of the important things to Barry was to preserve the voice of the piece. The piece is so specifically about queer identity. He respected that. Most people want to characterize it as a story about a man living on the down-low, which is actually not what the piece is about. It's about a guy who only wants to be with one person. It's kind of a true love story.
Absolutely, his one true love! It's not a down-low story at all.
Chiron's never with anyone else. It's different when you say someone is living a lie and they're going and doing other things. But he wasn't. That's the powerful thing about it. It's one of the things Barry wanted to preserve, and so did I.
Most of Moonlight is set in Miami. As a Miami native, what can you tell me about the significance of the setting?
It's a Miami that we rarely get to see. What we usually see are powdered beaches and jiggly things in bikinis, both male and female. We show there is immense beauty to the city, as well as immense poverty and other urban issues.
The scene on the beach between teenage Chiron and Kevin takes intimacy to a whole new level.
It's one of the scenes where Barry really preserved the nature of it from the original. Everyone came to the table wanting to be as true and authentic to the moment as possible. Barry didn't shirk the responsibility; he wanted it to be as beautiful as it needed to be. Remember, we have to hold that in our heart for another decade. That is a defining moment of Chiron's life, and it is extraordinarily beautiful. What I appreciated about what Barry did is that he trusted the words that had been written.
How much of Tarell is in Chiron?
A lot. Except for when he becomes a drug dealer! A lot of the piece is based on events in my life. A lot of the ways I operated in the world, being very shy and not being able to say a lot, are very close.
Are there any new plays or productions on the horizon?
Not that I've written. My play Head of Passes is going to Los Angeles in the summer of 2017, starring Phylicia Rashad. Other than that, I'm teaching my students at University of Miami.