Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young boy growing up in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Miami. Bullied at school and neglected by his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), at home, his only stable source of emotional support arrives in the form of a kindly local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The film unravels through three different periods in Chiron’s life (as a tween, teenager, and some years later as a young adult) and via three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) as Chiron struggles with his identity within a hypermasculine environment, and the heavy emotional consequences of living under such circumstances.
For the latest episode of the Slate podcast Represent, Aisha Harris chatted with Jenkins in-depth about making the film (which was inspired by an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), as well as his acclaimed first feature, Medicine for Melancholy. Below is a transcribed and edited excerpt from that conversation, in which he discusses his personal connection to Moonlight’s heart-wrenching mother-son relationship. You can check out the full episode in the audio player below.
Let’s talk about Naomie Harris’ character as the mother, Paula, because she’s said [in interviews] that it was difficult for her, at first, to not judge this character, because there’s so much weight put on playing a black mother. … So she’s coming at it from a different space because … it seems like she never really had that experience growing up.
But you did. So how did you guys discuss [the role]? Did she tell you that?
She did, she did, and she expressed her hesitation and her skepticism right away. Not necessarily of the character, but of her ability to play the character—somewhat of the character, too, because it’s really easy for that character to just be a negative image. To be a stereotype. And even I, in writing the piece, I was conflicted, because there is a version of Chiron’s story that doesn’t have that character in it, you know? There is, there just is. I think there are black kids who come from middle class families that struggle with their sexual identity also, who have a great support system. Pariah is a film just like that.
Such a great movie.
A great film like that. But I also feel like we don’t see—or I hadn’t seen—stories where queer kids of color who are from disadvantaged or depressed backgrounds, that their story hadn’t been told.
Especially not in Miami.
Which is the other part of it. For a long time, I wasn’t comfortable talking about that part of my history, and I even remember when the first #OscarsSoWhite or the second #OscarsSoWhite—I can’t remember which one—when that happened, I’m on Twitter. And I’m kind of active on Twitter, but I’m more of a lurker. (I guess I can’t lurk now; people know who I am.) But there was this conversation going on about all the black actors who’ve won Academy Awards and the roles they’ve played them for. And they go, “We only maids and crackheads” and blah, blah, blah. And then part of me was like, “Well, but, I’m the child of a crackhead. And I’m proud of that, I’m still here, and I love my mom.” So should I be ashamed of telling my story? That’s my story. And then once Tarell [Alvin McCraney] and I linked up, here are two of us, and this is our story. We can’t be alone.
So I felt like, not that I was being censored or shunned, but I did feel like there was inherently some level of shame associated with a character like this. And so it was difficult. Of everything in this film—and people always ask, “Oh, how do you feel as a straight guy making a movie about a gay character?” Fine. How did I feel as a guy who was making a movie about a single mom who’s a crackhead? That—I was scared. I mean, it was scary. But part of that’s because it was so personal and real to me. Part of it was the fact that, just like Naomie said, it’s complicated. We are carrying these images out into the world, and we can’t control how people contextualize those images no matter how virtuous our aspirations and our intentions are. But, you know, we had to do it, because of the truth of my experience and Tarell’s experience. And we can’t be alone. I’m sure there are a lot of people our age, who came of age in the ’80s, and who went through these things with their parents.
Right. It seems like more the conversation to be had is: How do we get different kinds of representation?
Exactly. Because if you had The Cosby Show, where you had Dr. Huxtable, and then you’ve got my character, Paula, and then you’ve got Being Mary Jane.
But then you’ve got, also, Atlanta, Queen Sugar—if we had the whole spectrum, then I think when we have these, I think, productive images of people going through hard times and very real things, it wouldn’t stick out so much. I mean, we wouldn’t so afraid that this is going to be the image everybody latches onto, and they’re not going to have the wherewithal to put it within context.
But to go back to Naomie, we did talk, and what it eventually came down to was: I expressed to Naomie how personal it was for me, and how I didn’t think of my mom as an “addict.” I thought of her as a woman who went through a bout with addiction. I think because she saw how personal it was for me and for Tarell, she felt she could do the work to make it personal for her, so that she could see past her judgment and see into the eyes of the character. And I’m so glad she did, because, whoa, she is amazing. And she goes to places—anybody who’s lived through that, they will say, “Okay, you did that.” She did that. That ain’t fake—that comes from somebody who knows what the hell they saw.