When Joi McMillon attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of “Moonlight,” someone asked her if she was one of the film’s stars. On another occasion, she was mistaken for a costume designer. “People would say it was a compliment to me because I dressed nice,” she recalled in a recent phone interview, trailing off with a sardonic laugh that sounded like the best defense against the absurd set of assumptions that have troubled her career for years.
In fact, McMillon is one of two editors on “Moonlight,” and poised to make history as the first African-American woman ever nominated for a best editing Oscar. “Thinking about it stresses me out a bit,” McMillon said. “Whether you want it or not, the responsibility holds.”
Although “Moonlight” marks McMillon’s first feature-length editing credit, she’s hardly a newcomer to the field. She attended Florida State University with much of the team behind the film, including director Barry Jenkins, producer Adele Romanski, cinematographer James Laxton, and co-editor Nat Sanders. While Sanders forged a path as a features editor over the past decade — cutting Jenkins’ understated debut “Medicine for Melancholy” in addition to festival breakouts like “Humpday” and “Short Term 12” — McMillon found herself stuck in the role of assistant editor on the reality television shows where they both got their start. Her early credits included episodes of “Beauty and the Geek” and “The Biggest Loser.”
Although the content didn’t exactly match her sensibilities, the experience wasn’t entirely worthless. “You definitely learn time management,” McMillon said, noting that at one point she was assisting 12 editors at a time. But whenever she interviewed to edit feature-length films, she was turned down. “It was so clear she was years past being ready for the bump to be an editor,” Sanders said. He would pass her name along for jobs he was unavailable to do, but “multiple times, they said they loved her but she seemed risky,” because she’d never edited a feature before. McMillon said she wasn’t surprised.“As an assistant, you can be waiting around for a good 10 years,” she said. “The feature world is dominated by a lot of men, which is makes it that much harder.”
Eventually, McMillon made her first steps into editing features by working as an an apprentice editor to Terilyn A. Shropshire on the 2007 Don Cheadle vehicle “Talk to Me.” While the gig was a step down for someone with McMillon’s experience, it put her in the environment she sought. Working with Shropshire, one of a few successful African-American women working as editors on bigger projects, gave McMillon a chance to assess the challenges of the field “It can be a very political place, especially when it comes to what you choose to say to producers,” she said. “Terilyn just had so much knowledge about how to be diplomatic.”
Shropshire has followed the success of “Moonlight” closely — the film has made close to $13 million in theaters and emerged as one of the biggest awards season players of the fall — and spoke enthusiastically of her former disciple’s success, shrugging off the time it took her to get to this point. “It has been my experience that talent and opportunity do not always run on the same timetable,” Shropshire said. “Joi has been out there doing what she’s supposed to be doing — working the craft, honing her skills, and proving herself both as a talented storyteller and collaborator to the filmmakers who give her the opportunity.”
At first, McMillon found herself stuck in a pattern. “As a person of color, if you work on a lot of projects that predominantly feature African-American casts, you can get pigeonholed,” she said. And so it went, with McMillon barreling through nine Tyler Perry projects as an assistant editor to Maysie Hoy. Then Sanders called. He had just been hired as an editor for Mark and Jay Duplass’ HBO series “Togetherness” and wanted to bring McMillon along. She was working as an assistant editor on the series when Sanders was recruited by Jenkins for “Moonlight.” He suggested that McMillon join him.
In film school, she worked with Jenkins as a production designer on his short films and he served as the cinematographer for her thesis film, so she learned early on that he had a very precise approach to the kind of small moments that make up the textured narrative of “Moonlight.” “Barry’s perspective on filmmaking definitely makes you take chances,” McMillon said.
McMillon and Sanders spent five months working on the film, which follows an African-American boy in Miami across three chapters as he grows into a troubled young man. It was a welcome contrast to the speed of the editors’ television projects, in which they had to constantly rush to new episodes. “When you’re in television, you’re like a single parent with five children,” McMillon said. “In features, it’s like you’re co-parenting one child.”
The spellbinding quality of “Moonlight” owes much to the layering of its narrative. The story of the main character — known in childhood as “little,” as a teenager as “Chiron” and finally as “Black” in adulthood — proceeds through each section by implying the psychological anguish of the character in passing glances and awkward asides. Sanders and McMillon divided the job between the two of them, with Sanders primarily focused on the first two segments and McMillon working on the third.
The editors were committed to finding cinematic devices to complement Jenkins’ ambitious storytelling approach, a mentality that the group has jokingly called “The Bandry Rule” since film school. The label goes back to a film class when one of their professors meant to encourage students to “expand the boundaries of cinema” and flubbed the line, instead saying they should “expound the bandries of cinema.”
In addition to inspiring Jenkins’ Twitter handle, the term gave them a playful shorthand in the editing room. “Barry’s really focused on what life feels like,” Sanders said, referring to meaningful cutaways such a hand sifting through sand at the beach and Chiron’s mother moving in slo-mo through a courtyard as moments that Jenkins would say “needed to be more Bandry.”
The editors often accentuated Jenkins’ style by toying with the sound design and introducing abrupt cuts to black, but they were careful not to interrupt the elegant camera movement. “When you get such beautiful footage, you have to treat it like another performance,” Sanders said. McMillon was particularly attentive to the nuances of the performances in the third chapter, when Holland’s character Kevin and Chiron see each other for the first time in years at the cafe where Kevin works. “As an editor, you have to pay attention to the little gifts the actors give you,” she said. “Trevante gives this little jump when Andre speaks to him. I knew I had to preserve that.”
Even as she’s on the campaign trail for “Moonlight,” McMillon has moved forward with her career, having edited writer-director Janicza Bravo’s debut “Lemon,” which premieres at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. She’s also advising a pair of college-aged editors and expressed a desire to keep pushing for more diversity in the editing room. “The reason this hasn’t happened before is that a lot of times people don’t know what an editor does,” she said. “There’s a lack of exposure to this job for kids who don’t come from a well-to-do background.”
In that regard, “Moonlight” provides the ideal platform for McMillon to assess the setbacks she’s faced. The movie explicitly deals with frustrations of black life in America and the ways those feelings can impact motivation. “It’s a bummer, but it’s the nature of the industry,” McMillon said. “I definitely want to get more involved.”
McMillon may have a clear understanding of the challenges she’s faced over the years, but she’s not alone. When asked why it took the editor so long to crack the field of features, Shropshire had a pointed response. “It’s a question better asked of filmmakers who choose their creative teams,” she said. “The talent is most definitely out there, and the discovery goes beyond the IMDb page. I am beyond proud of her.”