Since Labor Day weekend, Barry Jenkins has screened his new film, “Moonlight,” to enthusiastic audiences at seven prestigious festivals, collected near unanimous praise from critics for its tender portrait of black masculinity and closed a deal to adapt one of the hottest novels of the year, Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” for television.
Jenkins has not, however, shown his movie to his mom, who inspired some of “Moonlight’s” most unflinchingly honest scenes.
“It’s not a question of when I’m ready to show it to her, it’s a question of when my mom is ready to watch it,” said Jenkins, 36.
Jenkins adapted “Moonlight,” which opens Oct. 21, from a never produced story by the black, gay playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The film follows a boy named Chiron, played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, whose sensitivity, sexuality and dark skin have left him especially vulnerable in the sunlit streets of 1980s Miami. With Chiron’s single mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), consumed by a drug addiction, the boy finds acceptance and stability in an unlikely place, the home of his mother’s drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). He finds intimacy, and all the confusion that accompanies it, in a confident friend, Kevin, played at different ages by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland.
Audiences and critics are responding to the vulnerability and authenticity on-screen in “Moonlight,” which shows a world rarely seen on the big screen and which is an amalgam of Jenkins’ and McCraney’s biographies. Both men grew up in Miami’s Liberty Square neighborhood at the same time, and both had mothers who grappled with drug addiction. Jenkins’ mother survived, McCraney’s did not. McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight.
Jenkins shot the movie on the same city blocks where he lived as a child -- one location was an apartment balcony he jumped off to retrieve an old girlfriend’s shoe.
His path from Liberty Square to the Telluride Film Festival, where “Moonlight” premiered in September, included a crucial stop at Florida State University, where he studied film with “Moonlight’s” producer, Adele Romanski, and cinematographer, James Laxton, who is also Romanski’s husband. At film school in 2003, Jenkins made a short film, “My Josephine,” about a couple of Arab immigrants who ran a laundromat where they washed American flags for free.
“For most of us, it was a safe space to make bad short films,” Romanski said. “Barry was the kid who was consistently making something beyond his peer group. He was exploring characters who were outside of the mainstream. What 21-year-old from Florida is making a movie in Arabic?”
Jenkins won over critics with his first feature, the 2008 independent romance “Medicine for Melancholy,” and attracted the attention of Plan B Entertainment, the production company behind “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma” and “The Big Short.”
It took Jenkins a long time to land his second film, however. In that period, he started a commercial production company and wrote an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel he didn’t have the rights to (“If Beale Street Could Talk”). In January 2013, Romanski intervened. “I said, ‘Barry, you’re gonna make another movie.’ It’s shocking to me, but I guess I was the first to say, ‘I’m going to force you to make something.’ ” Romanski and Jenkins started a routine of video chatting twice a month about his projects, and Jenkins began work on McCraney’s play, which he learned about through Miami’s Borscht arts collective. (Despite growing up in the same neighborhood at the same time, even going to the same schools, Jenkins and McCraney didn’t meet until they were adults).
In September 2013 at the Telluride Film Festival, a serendipitous meeting brought Jenkins back into Plan B’s orbit, as the director, a longtime staffer at the festival, moderated a screening of “12 Years a Slave.” Plan B’s Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner encouraged Jenkins to focus on the “Moonlight” script, and A24, the independent entertainment company that distributed best picture nominee “Room,” soon came aboard, making “Moonlight” its first homegrown production.
Jenkins assembled his supporting cast in trips to middle schools and community centers. Harris shot her scenes in three short days on a break from promoting “Spectre,” the latest James Bond film.
“I had reservations about taking on this role, because I’ve always wanted to represent black women in a positive light,” Harris said. “I’ve never wanted to play a stereotype. I’ve always said I will never play a crack addict. But the script deeply touched me. I was in conflict. Barry said, ‘I don’t want you to play a stereotype, but the reality is, this is my story. That’s who my mother was, so what do I do?’ ”
It was Jenkins’ openness that won over Harris and many others, Romanski said.
“Barry is a person people love to love,” she added. “He makes people comfortable.”
On set, that meant winning over his own childhood neighborhood, where he hadn’t lived since before college.
“I had to re-prove my bona fides,” Jenkins said. “It’s like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ We’re shooting in the roughest neighborhood in Miami. I get there and the guys were basically like, ‘No disrespect Mr. Jenkins, but it shouldn’t be like that. They were helping me write.’ They’d say, ‘Nobody out here uses their government names.’ It was about them taking possession of the piece.”
In many ways, “Moonlight” is about the families we find -- not necessarily the ones we’re born to, an experience Jenkins seems to be having with his collaborators. In between festival hopping, he directed an episode of Justin Simien’s Netflix show “Dear White People” and has another project in the works with Romanski.
Of his suddenly busy schedule, Jenkins said, “When you go eight years doing nothing, you make time.”
The overwhelmingly positive response to the film has taken Jenkins’ breath away at moments, including in film festival environments where predominantly white, wealthy audiences would seem to have little in common with Chiron.
“It’s all sort of a blur,” Jenkins said of the last six weeks. “Having grown people cry in my arms at screenings is a surreal experience. I’m still processing whatever the hell is that’s happening with the film right now.”
Follow me on Twitter for more movie news: @thatrebecca