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‘Moonlight’: How Editor Joi McMillon Made Oscar History as the First African American-Female Nominee

The Oscar-nominated editor breaks down the climactic diner scene in Barry Jenkins' Best Picture contender.

“Moonlight”

Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24


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Joi McMillon, who became the first African-American female editor nominated for her sensitive work on Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” (shared with co-editor Nat Sanders), peeled back the layers of the final chapter of this triptych that she tackled. For the editor, it’s all about closure, and much of that culminates with the climactic reunion in a Miami diner between the gay African-American Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and his estranged childhood friend, Kevin (Andre Holland), whom he once shared a sexual moment with on a beach.

“Moonlight” not only marked the editor’s feature debut but also reunited her with Jenkins and Sanders, who attended Florida State’s film school together.

READ MORE: ‘Moonlight’ Could Make History: Editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders On Their Big Step Up — Consider This

“The first two acts are based on the play [‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney], but Barry wrote the third act, and when we discussed the diner scene he told me how he met up with an old friend and what it was like catching up,” McMillon told IndieWire.

“You find yourself going back over some element of something you’ve already talked about but you go in a little bit deeper,” McMillon continued. “And Barry had such an amazing understanding of what was going on between them. The guys are getting more comfortable around each other and they’re exposing each other a little bit more.”

"Moonlight" Exclusive Image

“Moonlight”

A24

When Chiron (who calls himself Black) walks into the diner, he takes Kevin by surprise. What transpires between is filled with tension as well as tenderness. Unlike the rest of the movie, it lingers in real-time.

However, the opening shot was done in a single take by Oscar-nominated cinematographer James Laxton, and it was executed so smoothly that McMillon breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t have to cut away from the spot on performances.

“When Kevin sees him, he jumps, slightly. Those are the gifts that an actor gives you,” McMillon said.

“But once Black tells Kevin [that he’s a drug dealer], the judgment that he gets from Kevin makes him want to escape,” she said. “That zoom in on the door is him thinking that he can leave, but he decides to stay.”

"Moonlight"

Trevante Rhodes in “Moonlight”

A24

That’s because Chiron has returned for closure. “I’m watching the dailies, and it’s so intimate. So, for me, I was paying attention to how it’s been so long and how these two people are finally connecting. How terrifying and exciting that can be,” McMillon said.

“But also when you’ve hurt someone, words can’t express your regret and how sorry you are,” she added. “And so when Kevin is cooking his meal, he’s putting all of that into it and letting him know that he loves him and how sorry he is, and he hopes that this is a bridge to get over that troubled water.”

READ MORE: Lush New Video Essay Compares ‘Moonlight’ With the Masterworks of Wong Kar-Wai — Watch

When McMillon watched “Moonlight” in its entirety, she realized for the first time that Kevin also represents the vulnerable side of Chiron that he’s been hiding from.

“Just like with Barry, there’s so much subtext and hidden meanings throughout his works,” McMillon said.

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