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39 Things We Learned from Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Commentary

“What’s done in the dark must come into the light.”
Moonlight Closeup
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2017

Moonlight (2016)

Commentator: Barry Jenkins (writer/director)

1. They didn’t know each other, but Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McRaney, the author of the play on which the film is based, both grew up in and around the film’s locations.

2. The A24 and Plan B logos remind him that it was three years ago to the day that he sat in Brussels, Belgium attempting to adapt the play into a screenplay. He first connected with Plan B having introduced 12 Years a Slave at the Telluride Film Festival.

3. The street that opens the film, where we first meet Juan (Mahershala Ali), is near the street where Jenkins grew up.

4. The goal with the opening scene was to drop viewers right into the world, and the single-take was less about showmanship than creating a fluid atmosphere to the sequence. “It’s like this fluid organism,” he says. “It’s just kind of happening around [you].”

5. The crack-addled apartment complex that Little (Alex R. Hibbert) runs into to escape the bullies wasn’t what Jenkins initially envisioned. They lucked out and found this abandoned building near where the opening scene was filmed, and it needed very little in the way of set decoration. “All the things we wanted to bring to the set, I’ll just say, were already on the set. We actually had to take several of them out and replace them with our various safe and clean products.”

6. He only really knew Ali from House of Cards before casting him for this role. “From our very first meeting he understood the duality of the character he was playing, someone who’s capable of grace and considerateness and kindness, but also could go to some very dark places.”

7. The play jumps around in time, but Jenkins decided early on he wanted the film to be three distinct parts. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Three Times was a big inspiration on what he was aiming for. “I wanted to show the progression of this character and how the world can nurture him in a certain way that basically causes drastic changes in this guy from one stage to the next.”

8. He recommends the fried fish sandwich at the diner where Juan and Little have lunch.

9. “Chiron’s Theme” is the score track playing on the drive to Juan’s house, and composer Nicholas Britell wrote it to the script (as opposed to the filmed scene).

Read on: Why Moonlight was the Movie of the Year

10. He points out that “someone feeds this dude” in each chapter of the film. “It wasn’t thematically or intellectually something I wanted to make a point of,” he says, but instead it was simply a way to identify a truth from his neighborhood that even when you found yourself drifting outside the community in your thoughts or actions “you’re not going to go hungry, someone’s gonna feed you.”

11. The film is Janelle Monáe’s acting debut although she’s performed previously as a singer/songwriter. She plays Juan’s wife, and she can also be seen in the excellent Hidden Figures which is currently still in theaters.

12. Naomie Harris plays a composite of Jenkins’ and McRaney’s mothers.

13. The music playing as the boys play “throw up tackle” in the field is Mozart “recreated” by Britell and his orchestra.

14. For the uninitiated, which included me, the game involves creating a ball of some sort, throwing it into the air, and then tackling whoever catches it. Jenkins recalls a crew-member saying that where he grew up they called it “Smear the Queer.” He finds that interesting as he never heard it referred to by that name despite the black community being the one supposedly known for its rampant homophobia.

15. Jaden Piner, who plays little Kevin, is from the same drama program as Hibbert. “They’d only been acting for two weeks when we found them.”

16. He doesn’t see the first chapter as being about sexuality, saying “It’s more about this idea of exploration, of really beginning to feel your body to sort of even feel the idea of sexual identity.”

17. The script originally featured two scenes of Juan attempting to teach Little how to do something ‐ riding a bike and swimming ‐ but Jenkins realized the latter was the far more potent of the two. It also fit the developing theme of water and ocean as “this place of possibility.” They put the camera in the water with the characters, and after realizing that an impending storm was cutting their time short they captured one of the year’s most beautiful sequences.

18. When he was in film school Jenkins would listen to DVD commentaries for technical advice and detail, so he shares some of his own here. “We shot on the Alexa 235 anamorphic,” he says adding that they also used a modified Angenieux zoom lens.

19. The shot of the kids dancing in the mirror was actually done to a song by Monáe.

20. The penis-comparison sequence happened to Jenkins when he was in middle school although he suspects some viewers might have thought it was one of McCraney’s memories as the writer is gay while Jenkins is not. “I think there’s something very universal about the way boys grow up,” he says.

21. He stops talking at the scene where Juan catches Paula (Harris) smoking up in the car as it reminds him closely of his own mother. “I remember not seeing those things with my own eyes but being aware of them because I would hear about them.”

22. Regarding how much story occurs between the chapters, he says “In a very glib way, I like to say it’s [Sergei] Eisenstein. The information is in the cut.”

23. The high school they filmed at is the one that his nephew currently attends.

24. The script originally featured a more direct dialogue regarding the absence of Juan in the second story, but Jenkins thought it important for viewers to deal with his sudden absence as a character would have. The scene where Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) and Teresa (Monáe) make the bed featured them saying “Juan is gone,” but he thinks it felt false. Instead of speaking it he allowed Juan’s absence to be felt in their expressions and silence.

25. The scene where Chiron returns home to find his mom wandering and high is “the most overt of the portraits” ‐ characters looking directly into the camera ‐ he used throughout the film. “I felt if I was going to make this film that was so deep and dark about my past and things I went through I wanted to put the audience in the film, in between the characters.” The film moves between 48fps and 24fps as a way of enhancing Chiron’s disorientation.

26. The film’s themes of sexual identity is far from subtle, but he didn’t want to avoid an overt moment of sensuality as it felt like a cop-out. The beach scene between Chiron and Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome) felt like “the moment where this side of the character had to come to the surface.” Jerome asked him before shooting the scene what it was about, and Jenkins described it as a moment about caring partners and caring for someone else. “He got really, really quiet, and I knew he wanted to ask a question. And he’s like, ‘Is this the first time this character has ever kissed another man?’ And I said no. ‘Is this the first time Chiron kissed another man?’ I didn’t say anything.” Jenkins says he prefers arriving at an answer with the actors rather than simply giving them one, and Jerome concluded that Chiron had never kissed anybody, period. “And from then he knew what his role was in the scene.”

27. In the nature vs nurture debate he’s a nurture guy, and he acknowledges that in can work for good or bad. “You can be loved into this idea of accepting and really becoming who you actually are, and sometimes the world can push you in a way that forces you to become who you think you need to be in order to survive.” The standoff forced between Kevin and Chiron at school is the clearest example “of the ill effects of masculinity… where power and domination and vanquishing things that are perceived as weak, where it can be just corrosive.” As with the opening scene, the schoolyard fight is shot in a circular motion. “Again, it was about very fluidly bringing the audience into this place where masculinity has become toxic. The world has literally drilled us down into this standoff.”

28. The school security guard is played by Jesus Mitchell who also “wrangled” all of the film’s cars (alongside one of the producers).

29. The school principal is played by Tanisha Cidel who is also the drama teacher who brought Hibbert and Piner to the film.

30. The flashing lights seen between chapters are actually the digital slate marker being held right up to the lens.

31. Trevante Rhodes, who plays the adult Chiron, nicknamed Black, originally came in to read for the role of the adult Kevin, “which I think back on now and it makes me laugh.” A producer passed Jenkins a note during Rhodes’ audition saying simply “Not Kevin, Black.”

32. They took the time and effort to find just the right paint color for the walls of Black’s bedroom that would best work with Rhodes’ skin tone during the nighttime scenes. By contrast, Kevin (now played by André Holland) is first shown with a “halo” of sorts in his kitchen to hint at something “mythic” about him. “I always described it to André as ‘You guys are in a tunnel, and you have this light. You’re just a guide, and you’re leading him with that light.”

33. Rhodes’ first scene filmed was the daytime shot of him laying shirtless in his bedroom. Jenkins laughs at the sight of his incredibly ripped abs saying “After this day of work I forbid him from working out for the rest of the shoot.”

34. The scene with Black and Paula is one of the most personal for Jenkins as it captures his own reconciliation with his mother after she beat her own addiction. “This is one of those times when you’re on set and you’re at video village, and you look around and the people making the film are in tears, which was a shocking experience for me.” He says he tends to close his eyes at this scene when re-watching the film.

35. Rhodes and Harris only shot together for half a day, but they connect through their brilliantly affecting performances. Jenkins gives full credit to the actors, but he recalls adding one beat that wasn’t scripted. Harris isn’t a smoker and was having trouble lighting her cigarette, and after the third take Jenkins whispered to Rhodes that he should reach across and light it for her. “She didn’t expect it, and once he did that it was just this thing of love. For him to help her with that just solidified the reconciliation.”

36. The song playing in the diner when Black arrives to meet Kevin is the same one Jenkins had playing in one ear while filming the scene. “Just to get the pacing and the timing right. I had no idea we would actually get the song, but this is the flow I wanted from the movement.”

37. The photo of Kevin’s son is actually the production designer’s child.

38. Holland auditioned via a taped submission, and Jenkins “goes on record to apologize… because he’s so damn good he never should have taped himself. We should’ve just given him this damn part.” The beat where Kevin pulls out his wallet to show the photo wasn’t in the script, but Holland did it on the tape, and they loved it so much they added it to the scene.

39. The final shot, Little staring out at the ocean before turning to look into the camera, was filmed the same day as the swimming lesson, and Jenkins knew immediately it was going to close the movie. “After going through all of this I wanted the audience to look our character in the eye, and look him in the eye in the very beginning of this story.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Not the typical location for a meet-cute.”

“I always knew I wanted some kind of orchestral score despite our ‘hood setting.”

“People eating in movies. Black people eating in movies.”

“This is true. There are a lot of black folks in Cuba.”

“My whole approach to this is everything is grey.”

“This scene is so hard for me to watch.”

“Most of the films that I’ve seen over the course of my life that I love I saw at the Telluride Film Festival.”

Moonlight [Blu-ray]

Final Thoughts

No matter what happens at this weekend’s Academy Awards, Moonlight is still the best film of 2016. Jenkins’ commentary reveals a filmmaker who’s well aware of the story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. It’s a great listen and an even greater film.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.