Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, from the Projects to the Oscars

From the Miami Projects and care homes to college jock and an almost-stalled film career, Barry Jenkins’s route to eight Oscar nods is as extraordinary as his film Moonlight

It is often noted that every movie is a minor miracle. And nobody knows that better than Barry Jenkins. "Very few people get to sit in a nice hotel in London in order to converse with an Irish journalist about a movie they've made about their life growing up in Miami," marvels the filmmaker behind the hugely acclaimed Oscar contender Moonlight. He shakes his head in disbelief: "Who would have thunk it?"

Moonlight, which has been variously hailed as a "masterpiece" and as a landmark in American cinema, is an episodic story of a boy, Chiron, growing up gay, poor and black in Miami. Chiron is seamlessly essayed by three actors in a triptych drama: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.

The actors don’t necessarily resemble each other physically and yet we never doubt that it’s the same character at different stages in his life. It’s no mean feat. But how did Jenkins go about unifying them?

It's so rare to see men look at each other on TV or in a movie

“I was looking for a combination of masculinity and vulnerability,” he says. “It needed to be concurrent and in opposition. Rhodes – as the adult Chiron – offers the most crystalised version of it. I wanted performers who could emote without speaking. I’m a big fan of French actresses like Isabelle Huppert and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who can do so much with just silence.”


Unfulfilled desire

Taking cues from Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Moonlight derives its sensuality from unfulfilled desire. "It's so rare to see men look at each other on TV or in a movie," says Jenkins. "Just to sit in silence and make eye contact. Part of the currency of this film are these very simple gestures of intimacy."

That theme is made all the more striking when invested with James Laxton's dreamy cinematography, Nicholas Britell's music and from Moonlight's unusual environment. After all, how many LGBTQ movies are set in the 'hood?

“When I first read Tarell’s script, that was exactly what struck me,” says Jenkins. “When people think of the gay community, they think of disposable income and social activism. But there are many people in that community who don’t fit that narrative or socio-economic profile.”

Tarell is Tarell Alvin McCraney, a MacArthur Fellowship-winning playwright. Moonlight began its lengthy evolution toward the screen as In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, an unproduced play and part of McCraney's application to Yale University.

Similar upbringing

Jenkins is straight; McCraney is gay-identified. But in other respects, their upbringings are remarkably similar. "I had enough in common with this character that I felt I could tell the story responsibly and respectfully," says Jenkins, who adapted Moonlight for the screen.

In common with Chiron, Jenkins and McCraney grew up poor and black in Liberty City, one of Miami’s least prestigious addresses. Both Jenkins and McCraney saw their mothers become crack-addicted and HIV positive.

They both received support from their besieged community and were juggled between caregivers. The parallels make it difficult to untangle just whose biography is unfolding on screen.

To conform, men are told: 'Be the biggest, baddest man that you can be. And don't be gay'

“One thing I never do is pinpoint which bits are mine,” says the director. “I do think the movie is autobiographical for Tarell. I guess the way to approach it is that both my mom and Tarell’s mom went through struggles with addiction, and you can see those in the character Naomie Harris plays in the film.

So the character is based primarily on Tarell. But one interesting thing [that] happened is that the original piece stops at the start of the third section. So that was added. That’s as specific as I can get.”

Conventional hero

One of the most fascinating aspects of Moonlight is the central paradox of its hero, who is gangsta enough, one feels, to feature in a far more conventional 'hood movie, but whose lawless tendencies are counterpointed by painful self-censorship.

“The world, or certainly mass media projects imagery that allows for certain forms of rebellion,” nods the writer-director. “To conform, men are told: ‘Be the biggest, baddest man that you can be. And don’t be gay.’ So this character has leaned in to all these accepted forms of rebellion, but his hyper-masculinity precludes the possibility of love. To admit, ‘I think I like other men’ would be a sign of weakness in his mind.”

Today, Jenkins cuts a bookish, bespectacled figure. You would never peg him as a jock, but sports became his way out of the ’hood and into Florida State University.

“I wasn’t a total jock,” he laughs. “But I was captain of the football team and captain of the track team. I don’t think I was very arrogant. A lot of the jocks around were full of themselves. But I also was not Chiron.

Make amends

“I was not bullied or picked on. But I saw kids that were bullied and picked on. And I didn’t do anything about it. Maybe, in some ways, I came to this material hoping to make amends.”

The 37-year-old says he suspects that “ . . . there [have] been certain moments in my life where the universe has conspired in my favour”. In this spirit, he stumbled across Florida State’s Film School because it bordered the football grounds. “I just thought ‘I kind of like movies.

“That might be interesting; let’s give that a shot.’ Lots of guys I played football with went on to have amazing careers in the NFL. And I guess people thought I would grow out of it. But as soon as I started creating, I knew I was in the right place. Nothing had ever felt so fulfilling.”

Having noted the influences of Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson on his classmates’ output, Jenkins immersed himself in the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar-wai and Lynne Ramsay.

Critics’ picks

His debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy, which premiered in 2008 to rave notices, wears those influences well. A one-day romance which slyly skewered African-American assimilation into hipster culture, the film was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards and was shortlisted by the New York Times as one of the critics' picks for that year.

This movie should not exist

It ought to have been the start of something big. Instead, Jenkins spent years on Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, an adaptation of Bill Clegg's junkie memoir, and a time-travelling adventure story about Stevie Wonder. Solange Knowles was attached, but the intriguing project failed to get off the ground. Jenkins wound up writing for the TV show The Leftovers.

And now he has been shortlisted for eight Academy Awards.

"Right before Moonlight started, I thought it was over," says Jenkins with a smile. "I just didn't think another movie was possible. There were so many lucky breaks. A24, the film company, doesn't do finance. They had to create a new branch of their company to give birth to this film. This movie should not exist. It's such a privilege to get here. It's so good to be Barry Jenkins right now."

- Moonlight is out now on general release