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For Film's Creators, 'Moonlight' Provided Space To Explore A Painful Past


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. The Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday. The film "Moonlight," written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the play by Tarell McCraney, is up for eight awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

"Moonlight" is fiction but draws on the lives of Jenkins and McCraney. It's the story of a quiet, introverted African American boy, Chiron, living in a housing project in Miami's Liberty City. He's constantly bullied, and as his mother because addicted to crack, she becomes less present in his life. The movie is told in three chapters, each focusing on Chiron at a different age - as a child, a high school student and as a young man. As time goes by, he grows more aware of and confused by his sexuality. McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the housing project where the movie is set. Terry interviewed them in October when "Moonlight" was in theaters.

Let's start with a scene from the first chapter of the film. The young Chiron is at the home of the drug dealer and the dealer's girlfriend, Teresa, who have been giving Chiron the guidance and comfort he hasn't been getting at home. Bullies have taunted Chiron with a derogatory word for gay, but Chiron doesn't know what that word means.


ALEX HIBBERT: (As Little) What's a faggot?

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Juan) A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.

HIBBERT: (As Little) Am I a faggot?

ALI: (As Juan) No. You could be gay, but you don't got to let nobody call you no faggot. I mean, unless...

HIBBERT: (As Little) How do I know?

ALI: (As Juan) You just do I think.

JANELLE MONAE: (As Teresa) You'll know when you know.

ALI: (As Juan) You ain't got to know right now - all right? - not yet.

HIBBERT: (As Little) Do you sell drugs?

ALI: (As Juan) Yeah.

HIBBERT: (As Little) And my mama - she do drugs, right?

ALI: (As Juan) Yeah.



Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the film. Congratulations on it. So the explanation that the drug dealer gives to Chiron about what the word faggot means is it's a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves. That's really a great definition to give a kid. Which of you wrote that line?

TARELL MCCRANEY: I think the sentiment is certainly both of ours, if I may be so bold. I know Barry constructed the scene for sure. I think in the original, he asks about it, and the drug dealer says something like, you know, you don't have to know right now, which actually happened to me. That's an actual conversation I had with a drug dealer in my neighborhood. He kind of said, you know, you don't have to know everything right now about who you are.

GROSS: Well, Tarell, in the movie, it's the drug dealer who becomes, like, a father surrogate for this boy and is really the only person who's willing to kind of take care of him, provide for him, reassure him. Did the drug dealer who you refer to play that role in your life?

MCCRANEY: Yes, the drug dealer who was in my life was a man named Blue who was dating my mother at the time and sort of came into my life when I was 5 or 6 years old and was very affectionate to me, very kind to me, very generous to me in a way that I hadn't quite experienced with many male figures, including my own father at the time. And I just remember him - I remember at some point thinking he treats me like I'm his son regardless of the fact that I don't share any of his blood.

And I did know that he was a drug dealer. And I did know that my mom did drugs. So I mean those - you know, those conversations were had but not as, you know, eloquently as sort of Barry made them happen, which I think is sort of beautiful. And then one day I came home from school and - no, came home for a weekend, and I actually think it was my birthday weekend. I had gone away to my biological father's aunt's house. And I came home, and my mom said, you know, Blue's dead, and he's not coming back anymore.

GROSS: What happened?

MCCRANEY: He had been shot and killed over the weekend. He had gotten shot and killed by, we assume, rival drug members in the neighborhood - drug dealers in the neighborhood who then later came in and moved into that neighborhood.

And I just remember having this kind of feeling of - what's the word? I remember feeling like I need to start counting now. I need to pay attention now because when I go away, things will go away. When I stop looking, when I stop paying attention, the things that I care about, the things that are good to me will disappear.

GROSS: So, Barry Jenkins, you directed and wrote the screenplay for "Moonlight." What did you relate to about the story that made you want to adapt it into a film?

BARRY JENKINS: You know, I saw myself in this character Chiron both in the way that he felt sort of isolated from the world around him, the way - Tarell just did this great job of creating a character who, over the course of the years, kind of retreats, you know, retracts within himself to escape the world around him. And then also, you know, Tarell and I grew up blocks away from one another. And we went to I believe the same elementary school at the same time. And both our moms succumbed to this ordeal with crack cocaine.

And I had never talked about that in my work. I had really never talked about it with even some of my closest friends. And so when I read the piece, you know, I thought, this will be a great way to kind of hide behind Tarell but deal with some of these very personal things. You know, I was like, oh, this is Tarell's story. This is great. I'm just going to tuck a few things in.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JENKINS: And it'll be all about Tarell, and I'm just the guy pressing the button, you know? But of course, you know, when you get into something this heavy, this deep, there's no way you can really - you can sort of manage or compartmentalize how much of yourself you give to it.

And so what ended up happening was I kind of became this character in a certain way, which was great because I think the only way to do the film, to complete it in the way that we did and to give myself to these actors in the way I had to was to just fully allow myself to live in the piece.

GROSS: So just, you know, regarding the question of homosexuality and masculinity, you know, like, proving your masculinity, you probably had no problem, you know, like, proving your masculinity to the other kids in the housing project where you grew up because you were on the high school football team. You were a running back.

JENKINS: Yeah, I did not. You know, I wasn't known as a neighborhood tough or anything like that. But yeah, I was, like, a scrappy kid. I kind of kept to myself, you know? There's - Tarell and I have had this conversation recently actually. There are elements of the character Chiron, his personality, that I think are much more like me than they are like Tarell as far as the middle school years go.

You know, Tarell very quickly realized that he wanted to be an artist, you know, and he was involved in the theater. He was very expressive, whereas I was not. I really sort of kept to myself. I kind of just watched the world. And I think to keep people from messing with me, yeah, you know, I went out to run track. I went out for the football team not because I love track or love football. You know, I just thought, you know, I can do this, and if I do this, this is one less thing for anyone to sort of, like, poke at, you know?

And I kind of excelled at those things. And it became not a performance in a certain way because I - you know, like Tarell, I didn't have many father figures. And what ended up happening was these coaches became the father figures in my life. And it's why there were certain things in the play that, again - you know, I never had a Blue in my life, but I remember, you know, a coach teaching me how to hurdle, you know, how to jump over these hurdles, which was actually a very complicated, complex thing.

And you don't believe you can over the hurdle until you sort of get past this block. And when I read the swimming scene in the play, I was like, oh, I know exactly what that is. So there were just all these things that were spread throughout the piece that I could put myself into.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guests are Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of the film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play on which the movie is based. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Barry Jenkins, writer and director of the film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play on which the movie is based. It's up for eight Academy Awards, and the ceremony airs on ABC Sunday night.


GROSS: So you didn't know each other growing up in the same housing project, but one of the things you have in common is growing up with mothers who were addicted to drugs, to crack.



GROSS: So, you know, in the movie "Moonlight," the boy's mother is addicted to crack. We see her grow increasingly dependent on it, and we see her life increasingly go to pieces as a result of it. How old were you when you realized that your mothers were addicted?

MCCRANEY: I was - I believe I was 7 when my mom had her first overdose. I remember I was on my way to school and I couldn't tie my shoe correctly, so it must have been, like, first grade or second grade - so 7, 8. But I remember my aunt came and said, you know, you have to go to school. And I said, well, my mom's sick. And they said, that's OK. I remember there were paramedics there.

I didn't know what I would do after school. Like, I remembered - you know, I was one of those kids who always had a very strange reaction to things. I wasn't - I was like, she'll - I think she'll be OK; I hope she's OK. I also don't - I don't want to make her mad by not going to the right place after school. I want to be in the place that she needs me to be after school. So I had to be around 7 when I realized that what she was going through was caused by drugs.

JENKINS: Yeah, and I was much younger. I was 3 or 4, I want to say. And I remember it as just these snippets of imagery, of just things going on around this very small apartment that I could see but could not see, which I think was an inspiration for the hallway with the pink light in "Moonlight."

You know, my mom was a very hard-working, working-class single mom. She raised - I have a brother and a sister who are nine and 10 years older than me. And so for them, I think it was a much more jarring process because, you know, they knew this very, very strong sort of woman. And then very rapidly, I remember, over the course of weeks, everything kind of just got torn apart. And it literally felt like she just disappeared, you know? Everything just changed overnight.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from "Moonlight" in which Chiron's mother is addicted to crack, and she's having a lot of trouble finding enough money to keep her supplied. And in this scene, she doesn't have enough money. She's drug-sick and that - she knows that her son, through the drug dealer's girlfriend - that the girlfriend sometimes gives him money to help him out. So she wants him to hand over some of that money from Teresa. So here's the scene with Chiron played as a teenager by Ashton Sanders and the mother, Paula, played by Naomie Harris.


NAOMIE HARRIS: (As Paula) I need some money.

ASHTON SANDERS: (As Chiron) For what?

HARRIS: (As Paula) That's my business. Don't you ask me no [expletive] like that.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) I don't have no money.

HARRIS: (As Paula) No, no, don't lie to me, boy. I'm your mama. That bitch over there ain't no kin of yours. I'm your blood, remember? Now, I ain't feeling good. I need something to help me out. Come on, baby. Come on, baby.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) Where am I supposed to get money from?

HARRIS: (As Paula) What? Teresa ain't give you nothing? Your little play-play mommy ain't put something in your hand? Give me that damn money, Chiron. Give me the damn money.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) I don't have no money. Mama, come on.

HARRIS: (As Paula) Give me the damn money, Chiron.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) Mama, come on. All right...

HARRIS: (As Paula) Give me the damn money.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) All right, all right, here, man.

HARRIS: (As Paula) Yes, that is what I thought. You're my child, OK? And tell that bitch she'd better not forget it. Go on to school. Ain't you late?

GROSS: That's a scene from "Moonlight." The story is by Tarell McCraney. Barry Jenkins wrote the screenplay and directed the film "Moonlight." Did money become an issue like this in your home?

MCCRANEY: Most certainly, most certainly for me. I think we - there were times, you know, that we were without food, and the lights got turned off often. We often used my neighbor's phone, which actually, for me, is the inspiration for Teresa. We had these really awesome neighbors to our left and right in our apartment complex who just were extremely generous. They had kids of their own, but somehow they were trying to take care of these four kids that they knew were in a bad place.

GROSS: Barry, what about you?

JENKINS: No, my mom was just completely absent for those years. You know, I like to say the character Paula is a blend or a composite of my life and Tarell's life or of my mom and Tarell's mom. And I think these years, the teenage years in the film and in the play rest exclusively with Tarell.

I'm sorry. I'm having a moment because I just remember directing that scene. And it's funny to hear it. I can hear the birds chirping in the background, and it's a bit jarring. I'm very cool, calm and collected on set, but this was really, really difficult to do. And so to hear it out of context or in context and hear those birds...

GROSS: ...When you say it was difficult, do you mean emotionally difficult, or it was just, like, a difficult scene to shoot?

JENKINS: Emotionally. It wasn't difficult to shoot at all. Naomie showed up extremely prepared. That actually was the first scene in the film that she shot. And she did all her work in three days. So when I say it was difficult, it was - you know, I was very jarringly thrown back into this time with my mother, reliving some things that actually happened and some things that clearly happened to Tarell.

And it was just the most difficult thing I think I've ever had to do in my life because I've gone a long time without thinking of my mother as that person, you know, because I do think that's a whole other person from the mother I know now. And I think because of that, I hadn't really dealt with what that time was like, you know, or what she went through.

And seeing Naomie fully embody these very dark things that I know she went through, it just opened up this portal where I saw so many other things that aren't in the film that I know my mom went through. And it was just really difficult to be professional and do those things because my job, you know, on set as a director is to live those moments with the actors. But it's different when the actor is living a moment that's taken from someone you love's life.

GROSS: So it made you think about what your mother had gone through.

JENKINS: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

JENKINS: And not even think about it. I mean I could see it, you know? I could feel it.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you both had a really complicated mix of love and anger directed at your mother, love 'cause she's your mother and anger because you were being put in the position of having to parent your mother.

MCCRANEY: Well, certainly I mean I think we all have those complicated relationships with our parents. I think the addiction sort of ratcheted it up a little bit unfortunately. I also would say that one of the great things about the scene we just heard - if there is something great about it - is that you can hear the toggle of that parent who is trying to somehow keep a connective tissue to her child by saying, I'm your mother; she is not. I am, and don't you forget it - while at the same time being totally beholden to the monster that's driving her to take money out of her child's hands and run out into the street.

I mean to me, even at that young of age, those things counted to me. In my head, they needed to be sorted into a box that said, I understand that she loves me. I also understand that she needs this thing more than me right now.

And so more than anger, I felt hurt. I felt unworthy. And that later translated to a sort of disconnect where I couldn't sort of be near my mom because I always felt like I wasn't worthy, I wasn't enough, that something else was worth more than me.

GROSS: That you weren't worthy, you weren't enough, therefore she needed drugs?

MCCRANEY: No, that drugs was worth more than me. And - but I also - I mean Naomi - again, Naomi Harris is what I would call a G. She's a master artist in that she did a lot of great research. And one of the things that she often talks about is finding her way into that character.

And she should totally be able speak for herself, but I remember her saying this, and it devastated me because she said that the majority of the women that she had done research on it about crack addiction in this period of time in the these neighborhoods - more often than not, they had some - they had suffered some sort of sexual trauma as a child. And I remember my mother very close to the end of her life confiding in me that that's how it started for her, that she had been molested for a very long time and had been trying to find some way to cope and thought, you know, having children and having a family would do that. And then - but it just didn't quiet that pain inside of her, and so she tried to with the best of her abilities.

So again, even in that moment, I had to - well, not had to, but I found compassion. I found empathy for what she was saying. It still didn't make me feel better that drugs were the only way that she could get that quiet or at least try to get that quiet, but I understood.

GROSS: How old were you when she confided in you?

MCCRANEY: Thirteen, 14.

GROSS: Could you handle the idea that your mother was, you know, sexually abused for a long period of time?

MCCRANEY: I don't know if I could. I mean whether I could or couldn't - I mean one thing my biological father actually said to me that stays with me - if you can't be ready, stay ready. So I mean she said it, and I just took it the best I could.

I also know that she was trying to figure out whether or not I had been molested as a child, which I was. And I wouldn't tell her. I wouldn't say it. And she just - then she broke down in tears. She was like, look; the reason why I'm saying this is because I don't want you to have this burden on you like I have it on me.

BIANCULLI: Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins speaking with Terry Gross. Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the film "Moonlight," which is based on the play by Tarell McCraney. It's up for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.

Coming up - Mike Mills. His film "20th Century Women" is also nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.