The first time I met Barry Jenkins was at one of those parties during the Toronto International Film Festival that I really had no business being at. Walking to the bar, a man approached me and said, “I read your review of my movie.” Now, these types of conversations can go two very different ways. This was a party for American Honey, so for a split second my mind started racing back trying to remember everything I had ever said about that particular movie before I remembered I had never written about it. Then the man says, “Hi, I’m Barry Jenkins.” Ohhhh, yes, the man who directed the most groundbreaking movie of the year. This would be one of the nice types of these conversations! (Well, at least until I opened my mouth and realized, after the few cocktails I had consumed, I probably shouldn’t be talking to anyone right at this moment. Let’s just say that I “gushed.”)
The second time I’d meet Barry Jenkins was recently at the offices of A24 — the studio releasing Moonlight — here in New York City. When you meet Jenkins (in a situation in which you are not gushing) he’s warm, friendly, but it’s also obvious he’s got his eye on you in a kind of, “Okay, pal, what’s your angle here?” kind of way. I get the sense he’s deeply protective of his film. (Heck, I sure would be if I were him.) Which leads him to be one of my favorite types of interviews: someone who is very interactive. Someone who doesn’t just answer questions but tries to find the meaning of why that question was even asked in the first place.
Moonlight (which is currently playing at the New York Film Festival and will be released October 21) is divided into three sections, each showing us a snippet of the life of Chiron (also referred to as “Black” and “Little”) — played by Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevente Rhodes as an adult. The film explores the ideas of what masculinity is supposed to mean, especially growing up as an African American man, and the transformations that happen to Chiron (that can be shocking) as he explores his own sexuality. It’s one of the best films of 2016.
With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has, without a doubt, created something that can be described as “groundbreaking.” (Just don’t tell him that.)
You have to be thrilled with the reactions so far.
I mean, so far, so good. You know, when you make these things, you imagine nobody’s going to want to watch them or only your best friends will want to watch them.
Is that an experience from your last movie, Medicine for Melancholy? People liked that movie but it didn’t have a wide audience.
Oh, the last movie, absolutely. I mean, that movie was made basically in a closet.
It got a lot of acclaim.
No, it did, but that’s in hindsight. I always try to remember what I feel in the moment of making the piece, and on the eve of the premiere… I just remember how proud I felt of the film, which had nothing to do with anybody’s reaction to it. And I tried to stay in that place, you know, to live with that feeling.
Do you like that it’s being heralded as groundbreaking? That can be a lot to live up to.
I mean, there are two different versions. One, we did break ground when we called “action,” when we called “cut.” And that was a very simple way of breaking ground. Those were long days and there was nobody from the The New York Times or nobody from the The Wall Street Journal, or Sight & Sound or any of these places. Those people weren’t there, you know? And I don’t mean that in any way other than they just weren’t there. We were just working, were being craftspeople, craftsmen and craftswomen.
But did you feel that when you were shooting it that you we’re doing something that no one’s really done before?
Why not, though?
No, absolutely not. And what we have to do is unpack the phrase “groundbreaking.” It’s only groundbreaking because these stories haven’t been told very often. It’s not that the stories don’t exist, they just haven’t been told very often. Or when they have been told, they haven’t been met with the kind of reception this film has been met with. However, we are not the first film that has tackled some of these issues. We’re just the film right now in a genre, in a space that isn’t very popular, that is getting the sort of reaction. And the only reason that I phrase it that way is because we didn’t do anything differently. I didn’t set out to make a groundbreaking film. I just wouldn’t, you know? That’s just not the way I operate.
Well, of course, but as you’re making it, do you say, “You know what? I think we got something good going on here.”
You know, the performances in this movie are really, really strong and there were moments on set where I did think, wow, everybody’s bringing their A-game, and their A-game is very, very strong.
I’ve heard many debates about who their favorite version of Chiron is.
And everyone has a different answer.
Yeah, well, I think it’s the best way. It’s the way it should be, you know? Because I think all those guys are very distinctly themselves, and yet they’re all the same character. There’s no one read of Moonlight. And I think there are some people who probably see themselves in [the young Chiron] more than they see themselves in [the older] Chiron, because they identify with a single mother who’s overworked to the point that she succumbs to the environment, and a kid who has to fend for himself.
In the middle section: gay people and straight people have felt that feeling in school of being an outsider and there’s a bully picking on me.
It’s funny, because I never think of Moonlight as a commentary on bullying. But then I watch that second story and it’s like, oh.
There are like five different commentaries going on in this thing.
I know. But for me, it wasn’t about the commentary. And I’m not trying to be dense. It wasn’t about the commentary, it was just about the character and whether you’re organically charting where he’s going and what’s happening to him.
But, for me, it brought back memories…
You know, it’s funny, because what we’re talking about keys into this notion of diversity in cinema, right? So I have this movie that is considered one of the diverse options in cinema this year. It’s shown at these festivals where the audiences are predominantly white. You and I are having a conversation right now about something that struck you deeply, instantly. We think about diverse stories and diverse storytellers telling stories that can only exist in a certain space, but I think in being diverse and being exclusive, because this story is exclusively about a black boy in a predominantly black neighborhood, yet that exclusivity makes it universal. And so I don’t think this story should be compartmentalized, you know?
I’ve seen movies that I know are very good, but I don’t relate to it. But I felt that here.
I want to unpack what “I want to relate” means. If you’re moved by something, if you’re emotionally affected by it, you’re relating to it, you know?
But I think that before any movie. Before I go in to see, like, Armageddon, I wonder if I’m going to relate to this.
Probably not. See, I want to see Deepwater Horizon, and I hear it’s a very relatable movie, that people relate to it. That’s why it’s getting such good response from critics and from audiences. But you would think on the surface that you’re not going to be able to relate to the characters in that film. And yet I think anytime humanity is on display, and I think it goes back to the performances.
So that’s my unpacking: When humanity is on display, I can relate no matter what it is. And if it’s just like someone telling me something, it’s like, okay, I completely understand, but…
And so for me, this movie was not about — I’m going back to your groundbreaking comment — this was not about making something that’s groundbreaking, because to me, that’s intellectual. That’s not something you feel. That’s intellectual.
But like you said, it’s the performances. Because you could make the same movie and if the performances aren’t there and people aren’t feeling it, people will go, “Yes, this is important, but I’m not feeling it.” And I guess that’s my point.
True. True, true, true. And my whole thing is I’m not going to try to anticipate what people are going to say. We started production on I think October 14, October 15, 2015. So when you watch the film, you’re watching these people embodying these characters a year ago, and the humanity you’re seeing, that humanity was created a year ago. And so now, to have these very intellectual conversations that are in the present tense, it’s not that I don’t want to engage them, because I think engaging them is very good for the work, but I can’t change the perspective I have having been there and what our mission was. And our mission was to get it right. To do justice to the characters and to get it right and to create something for the people who might see themselves in this film. And what I mean is like, who can literally relate to it. To have them see the film and go, “Yes, they got that right.” That was always the most important thing.
In the third part, we see Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, who has physically changed a lot. I heard gasps in the audience. You had to know that would get a reaction.
You know, I did, and it terrified me.
In my head, see that character as Trevante Rhodes. He came in to read for André Holland’s part [Kevin, Chiron’s childhood friend and first crush] before it was André Holland’s part. And he was reading Kevin’s lines and I just started to hear Black’s voice. And yet, he was so vulnerable. Like something in his eyes was still very vulnerable…
He can play both. He can play like Mr. Tough Guy and vulnerable. It’s amazing.
And so I had that same feeling. I was like, oh, so this is what masculinity looks like when it’s run amuck. And I thought, well, if I’m having this feeling now in an audition room, what is the audience going to feel when this guy appears on screen? And I thought they should feel that feeling. They absolutely should.
And when we first meet that version of him, he’s being intimidating to someone. He’s kind of messing with one of his employees.
He is. To me it’s like a commentary on how this man has begun to perform his role, has begun to perform masculinity in the way that he thinks is going to protect him from the world and that will prepare others to fortify themselves.
But to see that façade come down…
Which, I tip my hat to all the performers in this film. They really brought their A-game, they were very passionate about it. And Trevante, perfect example. If it wasn’t him in the role, the character would not look like that. He would still be more masculine than Ashton Sanders is in story two, but he would not look like that. It took that actor with that level of grace and vulnerability, for me to feel comfortable going to the place where, as you said, people audibly gasp when they see who he’s become.
Are we to have to wait eight more years for your next movie? It’s been that long since your last one.
You know, I hope not. It’s funny. I go between accepting that’s not fully within my control and then being like, well, you made a film on $15,000, you know? That’s totally within your control. It’s just about what you believe is appropriate for a story.
Okay, so it’s not you who wants to wait.
No, no, no. I totally do not want to wait. But I do want to feel more confident.
You could just pretend it’s like an old school Malick thing…
Yeah, no. [Laughs] Man, not even close. You know, I do want to feel more comfortable in my filmmaking voice, which I believe I do now. And I think so long as that is intact, there’s no way it’ll be eight years. Because very few things in my life were as enjoyable as making this film. And when I say joy, I don’t mean it was like fun and we were laughing. It was just wholly fulfilling. I was fully within my body over the process of making this film. And yeah, I think ultimately, that’s why I make films. And to go eight years without feeling that feeling would be a fucking tragedy. I would gasp when I saw myself if it was eight years from now and I hadn’t made anything else.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.