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Oscar Winning Miami Natives Come Together to Make 'Moonlight'


Photo: Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney
Written by: Michelle F. Solomon
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{This interview was conducted before the film making team went on to amazing Oscar success.}

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney and filmmaker Barry Jenkins are nine miles away from the Liberty City housing projects where they both grew up, but they are worlds away. They are at the picturesque Standard Hotel to talk about the new movie "Moonlight," with a screenplay by Jenkins based on McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue."

 

Shot in Miami in 25 days and with a budget of under $5 million, "Moonlight" is creating a huge amount of awards' buzz after taking the Telluride Film Festival by storm in September. The film has as one of its producers Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, and Pitt is cited as one of the executive producers along with McCraney.

Just on the other side of Biscayne Bay is Liberty Square, the public housing apartment complex in Liberty City that shaped Jenkins and McCraney's growing years and is the setting for much of "Moonlight."

McCraney says he wrote the first draft of the play that would become "Moonlight" in 2003, his last year at DePaul University's Theatre School, but he didn't write it to have it produced. "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" never was staged.

"I had a teacher at the New World School of the Arts who taught playwrighting who said if the play comes to you in visual, it's not a play – it's a film, it's a television show, but it's not a play." McCraney wasn't thinking of the future of the play like he said he did so many other times. Like the time he was creating "Marcus; of the Secret of the Sweet," the last of his bayou trilogy, which has brought him so many comparisons to the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson.

"I remember after 'Marcus' everyone was asking, 'Is Marcus's experience your experience?’" says McCraney about his 2007 play, which revolves around Marcus Eshu, a high schooler who is dealing with his own sexual identity.

"Marcus has this sweet coming out story. He comes out and his mom is angry and he cries a little bit, but then he meets this guy and his friends are like, 'We love you, Markus.' No, that's not my story."

He says "In Moonlight" was the exact opposite. "It was the most personal and autobiographic piece I had ever written. This was me trying to talk about being a person and about manhood in general. I didn't have that remove that I normally do, which is to think of the entire story. I couldn't think of the ending specifically of 'Moonlight' mostly because I hadn't finished living it yet."

It would take Jenkins to flesh out the missing pieces. Jenkins' adaptation of "Moonlight" tells the story of character named Chiron in three different stages of his life – as a young boy bullied in a neighborhood in Liberty City, then as a high-schooler trying to understand his own sexuality amid harassment and dealing with the struggles of having a drug-addicted mother, and finally as a grown man who has yet to realize his sexuality.

Jenkins would first be introduced to the script by Lucas Leyva and Andrew Hevia, founders of the Borscht Film Festival, which was started by a group of friends from Miami's New World School of the Arts in 2005.

"Andrew and Lucas wanted me to give them something that they could make into a short film," remembers McCraney. He dug out "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." "They read it and said, 'We can't make this film because we mostly do short (films). You're trying to break the budget. And we don't know that many black people – they actually didn't say that about black people," jokes McCraney. "But they did say they were working with this director on another movie."

The Borscht founders thought the film would be a fit for Jenkins, who they had partnered with on creating the 2013 short "Chlorophyl," a 17-minute film about displacement and gentrification using Miami's changing landscape.

"I think the wheels were always turning for them to get me back to Miami," says Jenkins. "I imagined when they read Tarell's script that they realized that it was kind of lightning in the bottle because there is a very specific element in both of our lives that you can't make up."

Despite going to the same elementary school at the same time although two years apart in age – McCraney is 35; Jenkins is 37 -- the two didn't know each other. And while Jenkins identifies as a heterosexual man, he did relate to much of Tarell's story. "He did a great job of capturing what it felt like to be a poor black kid growing up in the Miami projects," says Jenkins. Their personal stories also collided in what's become the role of Paula, Chiron's mother in the film, who is consumed by crack addiction. Jenkins' mother, Alcene, survived her battle with drugs and has survived being HIV positive for 24 years, while McCraney's mother died from AIDS-related causes.

They also connected in how they viewed Miami. "Liberty City is one of Miami's most depressed areas, but what you see in the film is its explosive colors," says Jenkins. "As a visual storyteller in a film, the sound and image carry your voice. It was really important to me how the film looks. From the very beginning, I saw shiny people and bright lights."

But was Jenkins afraid of making a movie that was almost too beautiful for its dark subject matter?

McCraney steps in.

"It is a beautiful nightmare. I remember us not having any lights because my mother hadn't paid the bill and was out somewhere and it was my brothers and sisters alone. The sun came up and it became pink in our house and it was so beautiful. So to see those things happening at the same time, you cannot leave that out of the story."


 



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