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Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Journey: How the Year’s Great Discovery Became an American Cinema Milestone

It's not easy for the world to recognize a genuine vision. Here's why Jenkins' took so long to blossom.

Barry Jenkins Moonlight

Barry Jenkins

Daniel Bergeron

That changed when Jenkins moderated the Q&A at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival premiere for “12 Years a Slave.” He met producer Brad Pitt and the other executives at his production company, Plan B, and as soon as he shared the script they wanted to make it.

“It wasn’t a writing sample, not a vehicle for him to get a different job,” recalled Plan B’s Dede Gardner. “It was the job.”

Co-president Jeremy Kleiner agreed. “It sounds very romantic, but that’s how we actually experienced it,” he said. “We couldn’t get it out of our heads. It felt at once incredibly specific and personal, the product of a very particular person’s life, and also dealt with epic issues, like the most fundamental things about being human.”

"Moonlight"

Moonlight

A24

That led to A24, the chic distributor supported by Guggenheim money that had started to explore the possibilities of producing in-house work. As “Moonlight” became its first production, Jenkins got his confidence back. “I thought, ‘This is weird, but it’s got to be good, because these guys wouldn’t take a chance on something that wasn’t going to work,” he said.

Casting fell into place, with little emphasis on established talent. For the role of Juan, the nurturing drug dealer who takes on paternal responsibilities in the young boy’s life, Romanski suggested her “Kicks” star Mahershala Ali, best known at that point for a supporting part on “House of Cards.” (He’s currently the Harlem-based villain on Netflix’s Marvel series “Luke Cage.”) Singer Janelle Monáe made an ambitious jump to acting as Juan’s tough-minded wife, while Naomie Harris threw herself into the tortured part of Chiron’s crack-addled mother.

Naomie Harris in "Moonlight"

Naomie Harris in “Moonlight”

A24

“I cried several times, because I know these characters,” Monáe said during one recent junket interview, recalling her poor upbringing in Kansas City. “I had cousins who sold drugs, cousins dealing with sexual identities … I just connected back to that.”

“Moonlight” generated similar reactions from an audience of friends earlier this year, when Jenkins shared a rough cut. “The movie had scene after scene of experiences I recognized from my life or those around me that I had never seen in a movie,” Nance said, citing an early scene in which young Chiron wrestling with his only friend on a football field. “It tests the boundary between something violent, friendly and sexual, but ultimately fraternal and loving,” he said. “It was a first in the history of black cinema … I had never never seen that, and so many other experiences rendered with such much cultural and geological specificity — but also with such flair, such grandeur.”

Simien was similarly impressed. “As rare as it is to come across filmmaking of this caliber, it’s rarer still to encounter such well-crafted cinema pointed so daringly and honestly at the black male experience,” he said. “I’m not sure I can adequately describe in words how powerful and cathartic it was to see for the first time so many aspects of my life portrayed so poetically and unapologetically on screen.”

Don’t Call It a Comeback

"Moonlight"

“Moonlight”

A24

Six weeks after the triumphant premiere of “Moonlight” in Telluride, Jenkins spoke while spending a few days in Miami with his old cohorts at Borscht Corp. “This is the first weekend where I can actually chill,” he said.

Reports have already circulated about Jenkins’ next project with Plan B, a limited series based on Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” which envisions an alternate history in which America transported black slaves on a hidden transportation system. He’s evaluating offers with a fresh attitude.

“I realize where I made mistakes the last time, or when I’m being presented with opportunities that I wasn’t being presented with then,” he said. “I’m trying to more properly gauge what those things might mean.”

Of course, he knows at least one meaning: the industry wants more filmmakers of color, and he’s at the center of its crosshairs. He moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, settling in with his close-knit team of collaborators. “Right now, we’re in this moment where black culture in arts and letters is just so fucking potent right now, and L.A. is one of the hubs for it,” he said.

Back in February, the lack of any black directors or actors among the Oscar nominations led a nationwide conversation about Hollywood’s failure to diversify. Even then, Jenkins expected the dialogue would soon update in his favor. “Whatever the uproar was about, I knew there was work coming that would address it,” he said. “The work arose from the actual feeling of voices that were lacking four or five years ago.”

He noted that the ripple effect from the #OscarsSoWhite dialogue was missing when he made his first feature. At this year’s SXSW, a filmmaker named Stella Meghie premiered another talky drama filled with black characters, “Jean of the Joneses.” Like Jenkins, she signed with CAA, and has already started shooting the MGM-financed relationship drama “Everything, Everything” in Vancouver.

“Right now, people are really hungry for these kind of stories from filmmakers from my background, or even just look the way I do,” Jenkins said. “My film is not this thing you can put into a neat package that you can describe in simple terms. It’s still a challenging piece. But people are much more likely to go inside a theater because of the exclusivity of the content.”

Jenkins doesn’t mince words when diagnosing the dearth of strong black cinema on the American scene. “Filmmaking is a very privileged art form,” he said. “It costs a lot of money to make these things. Naturally, the foundation for most of these projects are rooted outside of depressed communities.”

He’s more than happy to track down that support. “I just came back from my hometown making a movie about a kid who grew up just like me, and it was financed by white people in New York,” he said. “Personally, I can’t be angry. In my personal experience, the support was there.”

But that support speaks to a practical development as well: The audience for “Moonlight” is rooted in an underrepresented demographic, but the movie’s so unshakably gorgeous that it welcomes all kinds of viewers. Considering the crossover appeal, Jenkins cited one-time collaborator Solange’s interlude on her new album “A Seat at the Table,” where she pays homage to the nineties clothing “F.U.B.U.,” an acronym for “For Us, By Us.”

“This movie falls into that vein,” Jenkins said. “It’s for us, by us — and yet, at the same time, it’s meant to be shared beyond us.”

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