Moonlight Changes Everything
Cameron Bailey explains why Barry Jenkins’ film is a hopeful sign of things to come
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has just entered its third week at TIFF Bell Lightbox, but has already broken box office records. The poetic, coming-of-age film which looks at the life of a young Black man during childhood (when the character is named “Little”), adolescence (“Chiron”), and manhood (“Black”), is based on playwright Tarell McCraney’s work In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It’s a sophisticated and heartfelt look at race, sexuality and identity that defies easy categorization. We spoke to TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey about his experience seeing Moonlight and what it says about African-American cinematic representation in 2016.
Were you familiar with Barry Jenkins' work before?
I was. Medicine for Melancholy, which we showed at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008. Jane Schoettle (TIFF international cinema programmer) introduced me to that film. So for us, he was a new director in 2008 when we played Medicine after it screened at SXSW, and then I just kept track of him. He did some short work that I saw online and l loved. And we kept asking him every now and then, you know, "When's the new film coming?" So when we heard that his film was going to be finished this year, we were thrilled. We were all over it, right away.
What impression did the film leave when you watched it for the first time?
It was the first screening that morning. Right before the festival, we're in the middle of watching dozens and dozens of films. Sometimes we're here from 8:30 in the morning until two in the morning. And it was like a breath of fresh air. It was so emotional and so precise aesthetically, so thoughtful, both refined and humble in its form. It just felt like it was a film made by a very mature soul. And Barry's not that old, he's 36. (Laughs) But it felt like someone who had really thought through lots of different things about relationships, about masculinity, his place, where he comes from, which emerge in the film in a very graceful way.
When you think about 300 years, or a thousand years into the future… Do you think the canon of film will look more like Moonlight?
I hope so. It's impossible to know what people will be studying and talking about 300 years from now. But I think what we can say is that this is a film that could only emerge now. Sadly, 40 and 50 and 80 years ago… there were stories like Moonlight. In fact, you find the story of Moonlight coded in old blues songs and in some literature from even the Harlem Renaissance. But you'd never find the full expression that you do here. Because times and hearts and minds have changed in terms of what people can actually watch and embrace. Fifty to 80 years from now, you'll see similar stories being told in a totally different way. What I like is that this film feels timeless, in terms of the art. But also very much of its time, in terms of its mode of expression.
It’s a film about nostalgia and childhood, but it also feels very contemporary with the intersection between a queer identity and this identity that, perhaps, some viewers think they can understand and can identify in rap videos. It's interesting how the filmmaking style is this lyrical, poetic expression, but feels rooted in Black culture in a way that I haven't seen in a movie before.
It's funny because it feels unique and novel in many ways, but it shouldn't. I think that tells you — what it told me, anyhow — is just how constrained Black filmmakers have been. Because film is an expensive medium, there's a high bar to entry: they cost typically millions of dollars; not every Black filmmaker gets millions of dollars. It was hard for Barry to get what he got to make this movie. But what I know is that the lives of Black people are easily as complex as you see in Moonlight. You see that kind of expression in literature more easily. If you read anyone from Dionne Brand to Zadie Smith, there are countless authors whose characters are as rich and as varied as you find in Moonlight. It's just so weird to see it in movies. It's interesting that Moonlight is being released around the same time as Tyler Perry's new movie, which is enormously successful in a very commercial way, and has a range of characterizations of African Americans that we're much more used to, that audiences expect, and is clearly lucrative for anyone who is making that kind of story. Barry's kind of story just doesn't get made that often. I hope, if anything, that the success of this film opens doors for other kinds of filmmakers. I think that's probably the most important thing.
You could almost see Moonlight’s artistic expression and depth of feeling more in Kendrick Lamar's last album, or in Frank Ocean's music.
It's weird because I guess there's a kind of shorthand, particularly in African American culture, which collapses it with urban, with hip-hop, with street... and with violence in many ways. After the screening on Saturday night we had this conversation, and so many people talked about how they were holding their breath throughout the film because they were thinking, "Okay, I'm watching a movie about Black folks. And there's a drug dealer in it." And they're expecting violence, they're expecting an eruption of slaughter at a certain point. And it never comes.
That, to me, was a hugely hopeful sign, because in most people's lives it doesn't come. Or if it does come, it comes in unexpected ways. Movies have trained us. When we see one Black man walking into a diner and there's another Black man he's going to meet, someone's gonna get hurt. There's going to be a gun and all this stuff is going to happen. Barry Jenkins just didn't take Moonlight in that direction. And I think the film is so much stronger for it.
It's the same with queer characters. We expect that they're gonna get beaten up, or victimized, or punished.
For ridiculous reasons, we've associated those eruptions of violence with drama. That's where the power of drama comes, from seeing someone get the shit beat out of them, or murdered or brutalized or violated in one way or another. In Moonlight, the drama is in the personal relationships between the characters. Drama can be so much more powerful and deep than just an eruption of violence. The film does us all a real service in that way.
Onstage, during Q&A at TIFF 16 with the cast and crew, you brought up the last scene of the film, and how it had this intimacy that was almost uncomfortable to watch.
To me, that's far more dramatic than somebody getting beat up or killed. It's when someone expresses something that is deep or painful or true to that character and does so at great risk. There's enormous drama there and the way the film ends... it feels like it's so high-stakes. It's not life or death in a literal way, but in another way it is.
Part of the reception of the film has been around this idea of Black masculinity and how “Black men have feelings, too.” They've just never been able to express them in a movie before!
When I watched the film a second time, I watched it in part as an inversion of a Tarantino movie. Tarantino's movies so fetishize Black men and Black masculinity and do it in such a restrictive way. For better or worse, his films valorize the kind of Black masculinity that Moonlight is trying to get away from, that it is trying to invert and show how much more there is. That shouldn't need to happen. I mean, the fact that we have to talk about Black men having feelings is ridiculous. Like, it's crazy. But, in a way, that's what this very popular art form has given us. Movies like Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained… and this is not Tarantino's fault, he is one of many filmmakers who have done similar things, including Black filmmakers in some cases. But there's a whole strain in the history of cinema that is about the interior lives and the subjectivity and vulnerability of white men and white women. There's very little of that when it comes to Black people generally, but especially Black men.
Do you feel like it's a case of the marketplace not being ready for it? Or are the filmmakers not being empowered to show it?
Some things end up making money. And when things make money, we see more of it. (Laughs) It's really not more complicated than that. You don't have to dig very far in the history of American popular culture to know that there’s a legacy that's at least 100 years old of the exact character that Moonlight undermines. The Black buck, the hyper-masculine, threatening, sexualized Black man. It's in Birth of a Nation , it's in so much pop culture, songs, images, advertising. It's in countless movies, Blaxploitation cinema, more contemporary cinema, TV shows, hip-hop imagery. It's deeply embedded in the culture to the point where people take it on as their own, whether they're Black or white. Actually, it ends up affecting politics, and maybe this is the most urgent thing to be corrected of all — when you have politicians talking about thugs and super predators. They're connected, you know?
What I like is that Tarell McCraney, the playwright, and Barry are aware of all of this. And as Black men, they swim in it, but they're interested in swimming past and going beyond what that iconography defines. Moonlight is not going to change the culture on its own, it's just one movie. But I think the more people see it, the more people will expand their views beyond what we're used to.
It's been an interesting year, with Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation and then the subsequent stories about his past, #OscarsSoWhite, and the visibility of Black filmmakers, and everything that’s happened socially and culturally in the US… How do you think all of these factors played into the reception of Moonlight?
I'll be interested to see the discourse that’s generated between now and February when the Oscars are finally announced. Moonlight has become the indie frontrunner. There will be other studio films that might have bigger awards pushes behind them, but Moonlight will be interpreted and re-interpreted in so many different ways. The Birth of a Nation context might be one context that's brought to it. But I actually think looking at the film as a kind of pop-cultural response to Boyhood is even more interesting and more illuminating, because those two films can act as mirror images from one another.
I'm sure you saw some of the awkward missteps this weekend with the Washington Post review and the tweet about how "this is about a poor, Black, gay man" and “here's how we can all relate”... Like, why wouldn't you relate to a poor, Black, gay man? Whereas, that same critical community just rushed to support Boyhood because Boyhood felt like it was their story. That tells you a lot about what the critical community is.
I mean, the great news is that there's so much going on in African-American filmmaking right now, and not just on the big screen. This is not just the year of Birth of a Nation and Moonlight, it’s also the year of Ava DuVernay's 13th, the year of Atlanta… To see The Watermelon Woman and Daughters of the Dust collapsed historically in the same moment with all the work Ava's doing — Queen Sugar, 13th — just in this one year. With ongoing shows like How to Get Away with Murder. It's fascinating because there's a visibility and a diversity of representation of African-American life and subjectivity that really makes it impossible to just contain it as one or two stereotypes anymore.
Issa Rae's show on HBO.
Right! Insecure’s the show but she comes from Awkward Black Girl. Yeah, I don't think you can sum it up. It's great because music and literature got there a long time ago. People are very used to reading Toni Morrison or Zadie Smith as great literature and those characters are not limited in the same way as big-screen characters have been limited. I think it's now changing in movies as well, and it's about time. (Laughs)
When you see Beyonce and Solange addressing Black representation head-on in their albums released this year, or the Raoul Peck documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro… does it feel like the conversation is finally being led by the people who are involved in it?
Yeah, but what’s yet to be seen is whether an audience who is not already engaged with these debates is going to be able to join in. I had someone come up to me after the screening on Saturday night and say how much they loved the movie. She said, "I didn't think it was a race movie." And I wouldn't call Moonlight a "race movie" either. But I think it still takes a little bit of effort. If you're stepping outside your comfort zone in terms of watching a movie that has essentially no white speaking roles in it at all, but is an art-house film at the same time… It's an American movie that centres the Black experience and does it with a cinematic language that has echoes of Terrence Malick, Julie Dash, Wong Kar-wai, and Hou Hsiao-hsien.
And also The Wire, I think?
All of that is in there, and it's an enormously sophisticated film, aesthetically. But you're immersed in the lives of Black people, and I think that's new for some people who just haven't been exposed to that before. They're not always entirely sure how to talk about it. In some of the shows we talked about, in terms of Insecure and Queen Sugar — they also invite or force people to think beyond that. And so, "code-switching" is a term that a lot of people are very familiar with and we use it on a regular basis.
What does it mean for you?
It means that how I talk to you is different than how I talk to a group of Black people. And everybody code-switches. You talk to your parents differently than you do to your children, to your co-workers differently than you do to your childhood friends. We all do it in one form or another. The term is defined in a racial context, but it's much wider than that. For the people who are very conscious of having to code-switch because they work in an environment that's different from their family environment, that's just part of their daily discourse. But for some people, that's brand new, right? And they are quite literally not familiar with the language. (Laughs) But that's good! I think the more we all get used to understanding each other's perspectives, the better we'll all be.
Do you ever wish that identity politics were less foregrounded in movies?
I don't think I can say that. I mean, first of all, I don't see identity politics being consciously foregrounded that often. But I see identity politics playing out movies in subtextual ways all the time. To me, Boyhood is a movie that is profoundly about whiteness. But it never announces it, you know what I mean? And there are so many films like that. There are so many movies that are profoundly about male privilege. It's just that the narrative assumes that, in terms of what happens to the character and how they react. So those movies are about identity politics, or some concern, but it's not stated.
What's your favourite scene in Moonlight?
I have a lot of favourite scenes. I like the opening because it very much plays with expectations. It feels like it's referencing The Wire in some ways. And yet, it goes in a different direction and that's when you first see Juan (the drug dealer) be more than just a threatening Black man.
The scene where he teaches Little to swim is beautiful and that's one I go back to. But there are others as well. It’s when he's driving to see Kevin and there's a dissolve into the ocean. And there’s a Caetano Veloso song, which is better known from Almodóvar's films, Talk To Her in particular. Barry's very aware of that and so suddenly this very conscious reference for the cinephiles and film nerds out there… things like that are cool. The phone call is a masterclass. Both actors are really good, but André Holland in particular.
He's so open and lovely. When you see that character at the very end, the generosity that he shows him and the fact that it is about listening and being present...
The second time I saw it, I think I saw more of the character shifts. When Chiron first gets beat up, he goes home and he puts his face into the ice water and then he goes to school the next day to beat the other guy up. You see him turning into a hard man and what he'll become later. It’s not a surprise when you see the adult character of Black and he's so bulked-up and muscular, because you see how he's decided he's going to put on armour and modelled himself after Juan. I think the sex scene on the beach is great. Just the hesitation, the tenderness... there's real tension.
I love when he pops out his grills to eat. Those little touches are so endearing.
Even the cooking scene. Just the love, in preparing that meal for him. Watching it on Saturday, it almost made me cry.