Palette Magazine

Tarrell McCraney’s Moment in the Moonlight

By Gregg Shapiro

It’s no exaggeration to say you haven’t seen anything like Moonlight (A24). Written and directed by Miami-native Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is based on a short play by Miami-native Tarell McCraney. Presented in three separate chapters, it tells the heartrending story of Chiron — as a child, teen and adult — growing up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray the three ages of Chiron exceptionally well, and the supporting cast — which includes Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris and André Holland — are equally outstanding. That sound you hear? That’s well-deserved Oscar buzz. I spoke with Tarell McCraney about the movie.

Congratulations! What does the favorable response the movie has received mean to you?

Thank you, first of all. I don’t think any of us expected the response we’re getting...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 kind of didn’t think past just doing that.

What was the process of adapting your short play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, into the movie like?

The original piece that was sent to Barry was a script that I had been playing with since about 2003. The version he got was one that I was trying to figure out whether I could turn into a limited series or something. We were both working with a group called The Borscht Film Festival here in Miami. They’re based in Wynwood — mostly underground and indie films and shorts. I sent them Moonlight because I graduated from New World School of the Arts with a few of the people. It was a little longer than they could use; so they put it away. Then they were working with Barry on a short called Chlorophyll...They didn’t introduce us, per se, but they did put the Moonlight script in Barry’s hands.

What was it like working with Barry?

I think one of the things that was important to Barry right away was to preserve the voice of the piece. I think the piece is so specifically about queer identity. He respected that and wanted to keep that there. In that sense, there was never any conversation about diminishing or amplifying it in any stereotypical way. We just wanted it to exist. Also, it’s a funny story, because I think 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...He’s [Chiron] never with anyone else, and I think it’s different when you say that someone is living a lie and you say they are going and doing other things. But he wasn’t. That’s the powerful thing.

Most of Moonlight is set in Miami. Why was that important?

I think the significance of the setting is that it’s a Miami that we rarely get to see. What we usually see is the powdered beaches and jiggly things in bikinis —both male and female. I think one of the important things about it is that we show that there is immense beauty to the city, as well as immense poverty and other urban issues that major cities have. In that way, I think Miami can connect with other cities in a way that it normally doesn’t.

Please say something about the beautifully intimate scene on the beach between Chiron and Kevin.

Again, it’s one of the scenes where Barry really preserved the nature of it from the original and left it there, allowing the actors to take it to where it really needed to go. What I love about this process is that everyone came to the table wanting to be as true and authentic to the moment as possible. I think it paid off in that way... Remember, we have to hold that in our heart for another decade. That is a defining moment of his [Chiron’s] life, and it is extraordinarily beautiful.

Moonlight features breathtaking performances. What was it like working with the cast?

I can’t say enough about this cast. I love them like family. And I know they get tired of me. I send them random texts, and I hit them up on Instagram, “Guys! Thanks so much!” Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner, who are from Miami and in school right now, they’re not with us because they’re in class. They’re extraordinary and I love them so much because they remind me so much of me growing up in this neighborhood, in this community. Mahershala is so generous with his time and gave himself to this role. Naomie, who didn’t have a lot of time on-set, but she worked so hard to get it done. André is one of my closest friends, so it’s a little disingenuous to say I love André. I mean, I do love André, and I think he’s one of the best actors of our generation, but don’t tell him I said that.