Barry Jenkins never saw a black man cook for another black man on film until he put it in his film Moonlight.
Moonlight — in theaters on Friday — is a coming-of-age film about a gay black youth, Chiron, growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, which was affected by the rise of crack cocaine and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Chiron is not only struggling with the boys at school who incessantly bully him but is also dealing with a drug-addicted mother and coming to terms with his attraction to men.
The Moonlight director is interested in showing the quiet, everyday moments of black men's lives that aren't typically portrayed in the media. This is why Jenkins shows Kevin, Chiron's friend, cooking for him, he says, because these images are important to him to "prove that these things take place in our community."
Jenkins put the onus on himself to create these images and put them in his work because once he made them, "you can't deny that these things happen," the director tells The Advocate in Los Angeles.
Moonlight is adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Though Jenkins is straight and McCraney is gay, the two have many similarities. They both grew up poor, blocks away from each other in Liberty City in the '80s, and had mothers who struggled with drug addiction.
The two never met until Jenkins came across McCraney's play and reached out to the playwright about adapting his work into a film. Jenkins saw himself reflected in the world McCraney depicted. McCraney, who based the play partly on his life, developed a father-son relationship with a local drug dealer, and we see such a relationship play out with Chiron’s character.
Drug dealer Juan takes a pre-adolescent Chiron under his wing in the film. Chiron is constantly picked on by his peers, beaten up, and chased around his neighborhood, but the kindness Juan shows Chiron is what gets him through many of his hard days. Juan’s house becomes an escape for Chiron, who also develops a close relationship with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, who is played by singer Janelle Monae.
Chiron isn't aware of his queerness yet, but he doesn't have to be, because the bullies at school remind him every day of his perceived queerness, his weakness of being small, and his lack of the confidence he needs if he is going to fight back. His peers nickname him "little," referring not only to his physical size, but to the size his fear renders him.
Though Chiron may lack awareness at first, the subtext is there — Juan, Teresa, Chiron’s mother, and all the boys in his neighborhood seem to be aware of Chiron being “different” from the other boys. There's one person who doesn’t use Chiron or judge him for potentially being gay, and that is Juan.
It is at Juan’s house where Chiron, who is usually reserved, and has to be tricked into speaking by Juan and Teresa, first brings up something that everyone around him seems to already be aware of. “What is a faggot?” Chiron asks Juan, bringing a question Juan and Teresa already knew was hanging in the air into the quiet room where the three sit at the dinner table. Juan gives Teresa a knowing glance, and though his response may surprise some, that is exactly what Jenkins was going for.
“We knew, to see a character like Juan, who’s fully fleshed and has all these different aspects of his character, will be difficult for people because they assume certain things when that guy walks in,” says Jenkins. Juan responds to Chiron without judgment, showing kindness to Chiron after he asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan teaches Chiron that the word is a derogatory slur, but even if he is gay, there’s nothing wrong with that.
If Juan had enough "generosity and space to do that," then it "makes sense that he has enough space to allow a person to know or not know at the age of 7," playwright McCraney tells The Advocate.
McCraney says people should not be surprised by Juan's character. "We're all surprised about finding love in unexpected places," he says. "It's endemic of the character; he saw a kid being bullied and he could have gone on his merry way and done something else, but instead he stepped in."
Giving visibility to Juan, who is accepting of Chiron’s sexuality, is important for Jenkins because he believes that if people don’t see these type of characters reflected in film, they will assume that they do not exist.
There’s also a scene taken straight from Jenkins's childhood that dispels the myth of black homophobia. On the first day of shooting the film, Jenkins was surprised to hear someone on his set make a reference to a homophobic name for a game that Jenkins also used to play as a boy, though he knew it by a different name.
“Where I grew up, very poor, you take a bunch of paper, you ball it up, and you go into a field. You throw it up, and whoever catches it, everybody tackles him. It’s like ghetto rugby, and we call that game ‘throw up tackle,’” Jenkins says.
During the shooting of this scene, a white suburban man on the crew looked over and said to Jenkins, “Hey, Barry, what’s that game y’all are playing?" After Jenkins explained the rules of the game, he told the man it’s called “throw up tackle.” The man responded, “Oh, man, where I grew up we call that game ‘smear the queer.’”
Jenkins was surprised because he had never heard the game referred to as “smear the queer.” Jenkins explains that the game was about attacking the weak kid, “but we never overtly abscribed a sexuality to it, yet one community is deemed overtly homophobic and the other community doesn’t have those associations, so it’s all about the presentation of the imagery."
Jenkins is particularly proud that Moonlight is not told through an outsider's gaze. The story is told through the eyes of Chiron. There are no white lead characters in the film. It's something Andrew Ahn, the queer Korean director of Spa Night, also focused on in his film.
“I didn’t want to have to define what it means to be gay and Asian by showing a white character looking at us and saying, 'Oh, this is what you are.' I didn’t want the film to be about how other communities perceive this community. It was how do we perceive each other within the community," Ahn told The Advocate.
Chiron's relationship with Juan isn't the only defining one in his life. Kevin, his friend growing up, plays an integral part in his identity. Chiron grows up unsure of his sexuality, but he has an intimate experience with his friend Kevin when they are teenagers that makes him start wondering if he might be gay.
Toward the end of the film, he reconnects with Kevin and reveals to him that he hasn't been intimate with anyone, man or woman, since they shared that close moment together on the beach after smoking a blunt together one night. Chiron drives from Georgia to Miami to reunite with Kevin, and through that journey, he seems to be on the road toward accepting his attraction to men.
Jenkins says he is in the business of making realistic imagery, and that is why he ended the film on a note of potentiality. Kevin and Chiron hold each other in the dark; it's a metaphor for much of Chiron's life up until that point. It leaves the future open for Chiron and his identity as a gay man. Chiron and Kevin have intimacy in various ways throughout the film, such as cooking for each other and holding each other, and Kevin is the first person with whom Chiron has this type of relationship.
Jenkins wasn't concerned with showing intimacy through depicting sex scenes between Kevin and Chiron, but rather through the question of how Chiron will respond to the one person who goes deep with him on that level. "I like to think that it's not about what's going to happen the next day, maybe not even what's going to happen the next week, but its about what will happen a year from now," Jenkins says. "Who is this guy going to be? Is he still going to be wearing those fronts? Are he and Kevin going to be in a relationship?"
Those questions go unanswered for the director because to see Kevin and Chiron together would be a "fairy tale," he says. The one answer he is sure of, he says, is that Chiron won't be hiding himself anymore, and that is the most important answer offered in Moonlight.