Moonlight, a drama about the coming of age of a young, black, gay man, was named best picture of 2016 after some confusion when the wrong winner, LaLa Land, was announced. Moonlight had garnered eight Oscar nominations, walking away also with Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor wins. The critically acclaimed film by writer-director Barry Jenkins is the first LGBTQ film to take the top prize at the Academy Awards and only the second black-themed film to win Best Picture—12 Years a Slave captured that honor in 2014.
Moonlight’s highly cinematic story is told in three distinct acts, with three different actors playing the main character named Chiron. It is based on the semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. McCraney, 36, is the incoming chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, effective July 1, 2017. BlackEnterprise.com caught up with him to discuss his Academy Award winning inspired story.
What is the origin behind Moonlight?
The original script In The Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was written in June 2003. I had written a couple of pieces at the time. I began to try to put it together as a film or a TV show. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I was really trying to figure out my life. I had just graduated from DePaul University. I was going to grad school [Yale University School of Drama]. I had just lost my mother. I wanted to reconstruct my life in a visual sense on page through the only medium I knew how to speak. I am very much like the character Chiron. I don’t always know how to express myself. My art has always been the way. I was trying to write how I felt and put it into a narrative. Ten years later the script ended up in the hands of some friends of mine… a small company that produces shorts and films made by people in Miami about Miami. They were already working with Barry [Jenkins] and they wanted him to look at the script. Even though we grew up about three blocks from each other [Liberty Square housing projects], we had never met. He reconstructed the script into a screenplay [for a feature film] that became Moonlight.
How much is Chiron’s story similar to your life story?
It is probably one of the few pieces that I have written that has a great deal of my life in it. To that end, the film is definitely a hybrid between Barry and myself [Jenkins is straight, McCraney is gay]. A good two-thirds of it are actual events that happened to me. Barry constructed an incredible third act that is really powerful. Both of us grew up with mothers addicted to crack Cocaine. Both of us dealt with the kind of poverty and rough neighborhood [depicted in the film].
Was Juan, the drug dealer and surrogate father to Chiron, based on someone in your life?
Yes, the character Juan is based on a man named Blue who was in my life as a child. In talking to people of color who live in urban, particularly poor, neighborhoods, more often than not they say that they know that person [someone like Juan]. We know men like that, we know men who may have been to prison who still have a good heart. There are good people who do [bad] things. The foundation, my own understanding of what is a good man and what it is means to be a man, is a man who can show vulnerability, sensitivity and nourish a young kid in need. You sacrifice, show love, or extreme generosity to someone who is the weakest among us. What Mahershala does in this film so incredibly is he shows all of the trappings of what it looks like to have bravado but at the same time he helps this kid.
Was bullying a big part of your story and did you ever have to defend against an attacker?
You always have that moment where you have to figure out is it smarter to fight back or to run. When you do fight back oftentimes the systems are not put in place to ensure that entire narrative is being shared. [Teachers and administrators] are not watching who has been bullied for how long and for what. They are mostly just looking at who is fighting when [it happens] and not the thread. This is LBGTQ students for sure, but kids in general are dealing with this kind of excessive bullying that leads to retaliation. We see what happens to Chiron when he stands up to bullies and the toll it takes on his life.
What were you hoping audiences walked away with from this film?
We are having some incredible conversations now. This is a piece that I think allows us to start the journey towards some healing but we have talk about real important and heavy [issues] around masculinity, femininity, misogyny, sexual assault on women, drug addiction, femmephobia, intersection of poverty, stigmatizing and the oppression of LGBT people of color.