Barry Jenkins, the man behind Moonlight, is currently basking in a glow all his own.
Talented, handsome and impeccably well-dressed, the Miami native has made one of the most supremely beautiful movies about the gay experience ever.
Moonlight, about protagonist Chiron’s experience of sexuality, race and poverty in drug-addled 80s Miami at three stages of life, has already won the Best Drama Motion Picture Golden Globe.
This month, it’ll compete for a staggering eight Oscars. Jenkins himself is only the fourth black director to receive a nomination, after John Singleton, Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen.
Suffice to say, Barry’s hot property. But chatting to him in a London hotel suite ahead of Moonlight’s UK release, I’m struck by how modest he is.
I’m also shocked by his casual admission that the film that’s made his name almost didn’t happen.
‘I had extreme hesitation about whether or not me, a straight guy, was the right person to tell this story,’ he admits. ‘In order to reach the height of possibility, there are certain diameters; a first person perspective.’
I’m immediately impressed with Jenkins’s honesty.
Hollywood is notoriously unapologetic for giving queer roles to straight, cisgender actors. The question of a straight director telling a gay story (Brokeback Mountain’s Ang Lee, for example, has been married to a woman since 1983) is hardly ever discussed.
Well, you’ve proved yourself wrong I say. Moonlight is a near-perfect work of art.
‘Well no, I don’t know, who’s to say [whether I proved myself wrong],’ he argues.
‘Not that you can’t do those things, but there needs to be something there at the gut [that you can relate to]. What I often say is Moonlight didn’t originate with me. It originated with Tarell Alvin McCraney.’
Tarell, of course, is the openly gay playwright whose ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’, inspired by his own life, inspired Moonlight.
It was a mutual friend who suggested Barry check it out. (He’s now being taken to the Oscars, FYI). ‘He said “You guys don’t know each other, but you should! Other than a few differences your lives are pretty damn similar…”
‘I thought it was very radical: the form of it, the shape of it. Stylistically, his voice is almost avant-garde. And I was turned on by how true to where we are from the piece was.
‘[But] I didn’t think “I’m going to make a film out of this,” when I first read it; I did recognize this character Paula was very similar to my mom. But the exploration didn’t begin straight away.
‘I wrote him an email saying “Hey, this seems really cool…” After a few months, I kept a list of all these things that I’d read that were interesting, and Tarell’s piece kept coming back to the surface. I re-read it and that was when I thought: “Oh shit – this is something.”’
Moonlight, the film, would go to contain autobiographical elements of both Tarell and the director’s lives.
‘There are things Tarell knows that I do not know, things he’s felt that I have not felt,’ says 38-year-old Barry. ‘I had to find a way to preserve those things as much as possible.
‘Once Tarell said he trusted me to do that, at that point, those characters were mine. I went off and tried to not allow this intellectual doubt to enter the process.’
This crossing over of identities comes up again when he discuss the term ‘intersectionality’, and why it’s important Moonlight isn’t seen purely as a meditation on sexuality or race.
‘Tarell’s life is apparently intersectional,’ Barry explains. ‘Growing up poor was just as foundational for him as growing up gay. As was growing up with a mom addicted to crack cocaine.
‘Those things, when you can’t take any one thing to be the dominant trait that [informs] your personality, that to me is when something becomes intersectional.
‘For me, what I loved about that, was me and Tarell, although we’re different people, we grew up in quite similar ways.
‘The concept of intersectionality allowed he and I to see just how similar we were. It’s easy to take a piece of work, art, or anything and frame it through a certain prism. I think for a long time we’ve done that. But there are certain elements that can mean different things to many different people, but because of the framing…
‘For example, framing something as purely a black experience, it might make somebody who identifies with either the sexuality component of the character’s identity, or the poverty, the class element, from seeing themselves in the piece, and we didn’t want to do that.’
Jenkins has spoken openly about his own mother’s battle with drug abuse. British actress Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s negligent and crack-addicted mother Paula in the film. I ask whether she spoke to Jenkin’s mother about the role.
‘No. I didn’t want her to,’ he says firmly. ‘In the same way I didn’t want the guys playing Chiron to meet Tarell, or each other. I wanted them all to create these characters in their vision, but with a fidelity to what I’d placed into the script, and what my idea for the character was.
‘There’s something that happens when you meet a real person and go off to play them, you’re trying to re-build that person, and it’s never going to match up.
‘With Naomie in particular, because she began – and she’ll even admit – from this place of judgement of the character, I felt it would be much more interesting for her to work through her own research and personhood to a place where she wasn’t judging the character, where she’s working from a place of what I call “earned empathy.” And she did, she absolutely did.’
Barry’s previously said ‘Mom wants to see it on the small screen, which as a filmmaker makes me cringe.’ But one member of his family has seen it: his sister. And she had some interesting criticism…
‘My sister is a very conservative, Christian person. She watched the movie with her husband, who is even more conservative and Christian. They watched and were both like: “I love you, you’re my brother, but that ending? No.”
‘She wanted the story to continue,’ he laughs. ‘She wanted to know exactly what happened.’
The natural next question, then: would he ever make a part two? (I stop short of suggesting the title Sunlight, fearing it will sound too cliched).
Barry gives a smirk. ‘I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t…but…but… OK, this is a two part answer. I had such great time working with these actors. And I will say, I think making this film, the process, falling in love with Tarell and his words, basically gaining a new best friend, it’s made me a better person.
‘These characters have expanded who I am. I feel like maybe continuing with these characters, especially having worked in this way, might expand the boundaries of who I am even more. But I don’t think it’s for me to continue with these characters.’
So if Tarell wrote a part two of the play?
‘Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,’ he says, animatedly. ‘So, again, this is what I always say. Moonlight could not have originated with me. So if Tarell wrote a Moonlight: Part Two, or an extension, a continuation, of the story, if I read it and it struck me, absolutely.’
‘A hopeful ending’
Needless to say, this needs to happen. The campaign starts here. But even if it never does, we should have faith that things work out for Chiron, whose repressed sexuality almost destroys him. ‘It’s a hopeful ending,’ believes Barry. ‘I think Chiron is much more comfortable with himself.
‘The character’s on this journey, he’s deathly afraid of stepping into his voice, because of the response of the world, and the aggression he’s met with whenever he does embrace his voice, or his identity I should say.
‘The journey for that character is to get to the point where he can say what he says to Kevin in that kitchen. Beyond that, I don’t know if those two characters live happily after, if they enter this beautiful relationship.
‘I think Chiron has a lot more evolving to do, and that’s going to happen at a very slow pace. [but] I think the outward projection, the attempt to hide who he is, I think that shit is shattered.’
The BAFTAs irritatingly overlooked Moonlight last night. And while we’re pretty confident it’ll win big at the Oscars, but we can’t rule out another Brokeback Mountain moment.
Nevertheless, as a universal story about being gay, Moonlight is already canonical. (Barry’s favourite such movies are Happy Together by Wong Kar-wai, and Blue is the Warmest Colour by Abdellatif Kechiche, by the way).
In the current political climate, we need straight allies more than ever.
In Jenkins, we have a powerful new voice. A straight director who was able to empathize with his gay friend’s struggle so profoundly, he created a revealing masterpiece about them both.
Moonlight hits UK screens on 17 February.