Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight has won three important Academy Awards: for best picture, adapted screenplay (Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney) and supporting actor (Mahershala Ali). Jenkins’s second movie is an American coming-of-age drama told through three chapters. The film chronicles the life of Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), who has been a victim of bullying in school, has a difficult relationship with his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and is trying to come to terms with his sexuality.
Based on McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the journey of Moonlight from a shelved play to the screen was long and arduous.
McCraney wrote the play in 2003, but it was never produced. Jenkins made a promising start with the independent low-budget romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy in 2008. He was looking for a script when someone from the Borscht arts collective in Miami introduced him to McCraney’s work. The plot struck a chord with Jenkins, who realised that McCraney and he had grown up in similar circumstances.
“I realized that, holy shit, we were in a lot of the same places, knew a lot of the same streets, had a very similar experience growing up,” the 37-year-old Jenkins said in an interview. “What grabbed me was the way the guys talked to each other – and the way they didn’t talk to each other.”
A meeting with McCraney prompted Jenkins to begin work on the script. McCraney’s play was about his complex relationship with his mother, who died of AIDS. Jenkins took the core idea and added his own experiences growing up in Liberty City, one of Miami’s most notorious neighbourhoods.
Indie film producer Adele Romanski took an interest in Jenkins’s script. Moonlight was produced by actor Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B and distributor A24 Films. The film was shot over 25 days in South Florida with a budget of $5 million.
Three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) played the role of Chiron through the different phases of growth from a child to a young man. Three other actors (André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner) were cast as Chiron’s closest friend. Mahershala Ali was cast in a pivotal role as a father-figure to the distraught child Chiron, for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Featuring James Laxton’s exceptional cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s meditative background score, Moonlight was premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2016. In a New York Times film review, critic AO Scott was an early champion, headlining his review with the title, Is This the Year’s Best Movie?.
Moonlight got a wide release across America in November 2016. It set in motion an award-laden journey leading up the Oscars, where Moonlight received eight Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney), Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell), Best Cinematography (James Laxton) and Best Film Editing (Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders).
Moonlight’s uphill journey for recognition even after 13 years of languishing as an unproduced play has a great deal to do with race. When Jenkins began shopping the script to Hollywood studios, an executive asked him, “So, where are the white people?” By honouring Moonlight’s black and blue hues, Hollywood is learning to approve of its multi-coloured world.