For Film's Creators, 'Moonlight' Provided Space To Explore A Painful Past
Film director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell McCraney both grew up in the same housing project in Miami, and both were raised by mothers who were addicted to crack. Their new film Moonlight draws on their experiences.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "Moonlight" is fiction but it draws on the lives of its writers, who are my guests. It's the story of a quiet, introverted African-American boy, Chiron, growing up in a housing project in Miami's Liberty City. He's constantly bullied. As his mother becomes 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 young man. As time goes by, he grows more aware of and confused by his sexuality. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote this after seeing "Moonlight's" premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. (Reading) To say that it received a warm welcome would be a drastic understatement. There were tears and standing ovations.
My guest, Barry Jenkins, wrote and directed "Moonlight." He also wrote and directed the film "Medicine For Melancholy." He adapted "Moonlight" from a play by Tarell McCraney, who's also with us. McCraney was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013, which is more commonly known as the genius award. He's been an ensemble member of Steppenwolf Theatre and international writer in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the same housing project where the movie "Moonlight" is set.
Let's start with a scene from the first chapter of "Moonlight." The young Chiron is at the home of a 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, but Chiron doesn't know what that word means.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOONLIGHT")
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.
GROSS: 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?
BARRY JENKINS: I can't even remember (laughter).
JENKINS: I mean, there are things in the script that because we're doing so many Q&A's that I'm like, did I write that? Did Tarell write that?
JENKINS: It kind of just blends into this thing.
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.
Which was a sort of a nugget that I kind of carried with me because there are - and even now, there are moments where I'm like, well, shouldn't I know everything about myself? Shouldn't I be fully-formed in my identity of who I am, what I am, what I want? And I kind of always go back to that place of, you don't really have to know right now, you know. We don't always need to know exactly at this moment, so.
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, for lack of a better, more nuanced answer. Yes, I think - yes, he did. I think what Barry did was was exactly what I was trying to do in the original work, which was try to show the magnitude of this very short period of time. I mean, they meet when this kid is already cognitive and conscious of the world, and already kind of undergoing some bullying and stresses and pressures. And then what we don't see, and what actually happened in life, is that that time was pretty short.
I met 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 never - 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. Yeah. So - 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 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: That's an interesting way of looking at it. I thought you were going to say that you started to think about how life can be much shorter than we expect.
MCCRANEY: Well, I wish (laughter).
GROSS: But you said you - yeah - you said you were afraid if you didn't pay attention, things would disappear?
MCCRANEY: Yeah. And I think that fear sort of stayed with me and stays with me. And then, you know, I didn't write the original script "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" until my mother passed away in 2003. She died of AIDS-related complications when I - when I was - I graduated from undergrad and she died the next month. And it - you know, that feeling of, if I don't pay attention these things will leave. If I don't - I'm losing the things that I care about when I'm not paying attention. All throughout undergrad I felt like I should have been there at her bedside instead of in school.
And so it just - it found its way in my work often. I mean, most of my players talk about it and certainly this film did. And Barry, again, I can't give him enough credit. He just really found a way into it that was beautiful and personal and - I'm going to stop crying. Go ahead, somebody else say something.
GROSS: Well, is writing a way of paying attention after the fact?
MCCRANEY: Always. Writing is a way of grabbing things. I mean, the author Reinaldo Arenas in his book "The Brightest Star" talks about this. It's one of those beautiful moments where he talks about Arturo, who's - who is in a Cuban prison. He's there because he's been accused of being homosexual. And so he's in this kind of concentration camp in Cuba. And his only way to get out is to pin down all of the details of his imagination, to just put them down so that he has them to go back to. And I always found that so thrilling because it was one of those moments where I actually saw someone doing the things that I was doing, trying to put down the exquisite and sometimes excruciating feelings that I was having or experiencing.
GROSS: Barry, I want to bring you in the conversation in a minute, but I just have a couple of more questions for Tarell.
JENKINS: No, I'm good. I'm good.
GROSS: OK. So the main character...
MCCRANEY: ...(Laughter) Of course you are.
GROSS: (Laughter) The main character, the boy in this who we see grow into manhood, is bullied and he's called a faggot before he understands what the word means and before he really understands whether he's gay or not. So Tarell, does that come from your experience of, like, feeling like maybe you're gay before you comprehended what that meant or before knowing if you really were, but other people were saying that you were before you knew?
MCCRANEY: I mean, it took me a long time to figure out what gay meant to me. I mean, even to this day I have to qualify people because they think gay means - or gay to them in their sort of heteronormative thinking of it means that I only engage in sexual acts with men. And to me, gay means being in an intimate, loving relationship with a person of the same gender - to me. And I feel like that - it took me a long time to come to that 'cause I didn't really actually understand that.
And I couldn't understand why people were calling me gay. I certainly had an attraction to women, still have an attraction to women. But what they did see me do or they could see in me is that I was more graceful than the other boys. I was less rough-and-tumble. I wanted to go to ballet class. I liked spinning around in circles. I crossed my legs when I sat down. I didn't walk like I, you know, had just gotten off of a horse.
Those things were things that they - you know, they sort of saw in me instantly. And they sort of said, this phenotypic view of you must be what you're feeling inside. And that couldn't be further than the truth. At that time, again, I was into He-Man and She-Ra equally, if that makes any sense.
GROSS: Well, you know, in the movie, Chiron runs and cowers when he's bullied and ganged up on by kids who are, you know, accusing him of being gay. What was your reaction? Were you bullied? And did you run? Did you fight back?
MCCRANEY: I did all of the above (laughter). All of the above. I mean, sometimes you fight. Sometimes you know that this is not the day to fight. Sometimes you know - you know, sometimes you tell an adult. I mean, what I quickly learned is that telling adults did little to nothing.
GROSS: Who did you tell?
MCCRANEY: Teachers, my parents, police officers. There was one time these kids, they pretty - beat me up pretty bad. And I was on the corner, and I sort of limped my way home. And then the police came about six hours later to ask me about it. And they said, yeah, well, kids will be kids. And I said, OK. So - and I knew then that there were a few ways to sort of deal with this, and telling adults was not that way.
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?
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.
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, you know, 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. You know, 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 there - 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.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins. Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the new film "Moonlight." It's adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new movie "Moonlight" with its writer and director Barry Jenkins. And with Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play that it's based on. "Moonlight" Tells the story of a boy growing up in a housing project in Liberty City, Miami. McCraney and Jenkins grew up in that project where the movie's set, but they didn't know each other back then. You know, the main character in "Moonlight," Chiron, is - you know, is really quiet. He hardly says anything in the movie.
GROSS: He doesn't express himself through words. And were either of you that quiet? Like, where does that come from in the film?
MCCRANEY: I'm still at that part.
JENKINS: That was absolutely me. I'll cop to that one. And was...
GROSS: Wait, I think you've both taken credit for that (laughter).
JENKINS: Tarell, you were not - come on, bro - you were not a quiet child. I didn't know you, but I assume there's no way.
MCCRANEY: You just told - you just told Franklin that you can't read me because I don't say more than five words. Like...
JENKINS: This is true.
MCCRANEY: ...I'm grown, 36 now.
JENKINS: And I will say that there's a line in the script where Andre Holland says to Trevante Rhodes, you ain't changed one bit. You still can't say more than five words at a time (laughter). And that is definitely me talking about Tarell. So, yeah, you're right, I take it back, I take it back. Yeah, I was a super - super quiet kid.
You know, growing up the way I did, you know, I was raised by a woman who took my mom off the street when she was pregnant with my sister. And, you know, there's a certain kind of love that was implicit in that because I was no blood relation to this woman and yet she allowed me to stay in her house. But I always felt just a little bit of distance from everyone else. And so I kind of kept - kept to myself. And when Tarell, you know, allowed me to sort of run with the play, I kind of made, like, a very hard decision that the character was going to emote with his body and in particular with his eyes and not so much with his words. You know, I wanted when he spoke for those things to really, really count.
MCCRANEY: And I can just remember - I mean, I - again, the - I was in performing arts high school so you had to say something. But I remember there was this moment where I would get on the train to go home to Liberty City and, you know, as the train entered the kind of the city limit, my - I would shut down. I would just become much more akin to what you see in the film than I was at school. And people couldn't make heads or tails of it. I mean, I had teachers who would say when I came in in the morning it took me till noon before I became - became the person that they knew again. And then I would go right back to going home and then kind of becoming recalcitrant all over again. So I definitely identified with that, and that's why I think it was embedded in the story in some way.
GROSS: In the movie, we see the main character Chiron in three different stages of his life, first as a child, then as a high school student and then as a young man, probably in his 20s. So you have three different actors playing him and playing his friend Kevin, who we also see in three different stages of his life. So Barry, when you were casting those two roles, which did you cast first, like, the younger version, the older version?
JENKINS: You know, we cast in reverse. We cast the older versions first, and we saved the kids for last. One, I knew I wanted the kids to be from Miami, and so it was going to be a longer search. I wanted them to be non-actors from Miami. And then also, I felt like if I knew where this character ended up, I'd have a better grasp on where he needed to start. And so we sort of did it in reverse.
And, you know, it wasn't so much about finding actors that looked like one another, that had this physical resemblance so much as it was about trying to find this sort of, like, vulnerability and this warmth in their eyes. You know, I wanted to find, you know, these black men - I said to my producer, I was like, you know, when you watch French cinema, you watch French actresses. And usually, there's some French man who's being just an idiot, and they're just watching him come undone. And you just see so much, so much emotion on their faces. And so I was trying to find these black men who could do the same thing.
And to me - there's this book by Walter Murch called "In The Blink Of An Eye" that I really love. It's the first text I read in film school that kind of, like, in a concrete way illustrated for me what was possible in cinema through - through performance. And I was like if I can find these guys with the same eyes, you know, I think we can have a really solid continuum, you know, across three chapters.
GROSS: My guests are Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed the new film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play it's adapted from. After we take a short break, we'll talk more about their lives and how they were affected by their mother's addictions. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO STRANGER")
BARBARA LEWIS: (Singing) Hello stranger, it seems so good to see you back again. How long has it been?
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?
MCCRANEY: Yes. I think one of the things that's interesting about this - and again, I apologize because I'm learning things about Barry but also about myself and my neighborhood as we go through this process of talking about this piece. The movie is allowing deeper conversations than I've had before about these very subjects. And the crack epidemic cannot be underestimated. There are so many people our age who say, oh, yeah, my mom struggled, too, or oh, yeah, my father - I lost my father or my brother.
And I - and not that I'd thought we were alone in this, that we were outliers in some way. But at the same time, the kind of devastation that this addiction had or has to our - and then we don't live - Liberty City is not a big area of Miami. I mean, Miami, the city proper, isn't that large. But Liberty City is not that large. And so I have at least 10 people from my high school days or from my - you know, my middle school days say, yeah, no, that happened to us, too. We were dealing with that or we lost someone is devastating all over again for me.
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 that 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. The doctor - 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, 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, you know, this - what was - 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, you know, 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")
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."
So we were talking about how you each grew up with crack-addicted mothers. 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. And I remember pretty much throughout my entire middle school life we didn't have a phone. And so my teachers would often ask how to get in contact with my mother if something was going wrong at school. And they would just sort of think, OK, well, I have to send a note or I have to call the neighbor's phone.
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.
So if I did get money from an aunt or a grandmother or whoever, more often than not, you know, my mom would find a way to take it or talk me out of it. Or sometimes the TV would disappear. Or sometimes the furniture would disappear. So...
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.
JENKINS: And not even think about it. I mean, I could see it, you know? I could feel it, you know?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Barry Jenkins and Tarell McCraney. Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the new film "Moonlight." It's adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Barry Jenkins, who co-wrote and directed the new film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play that "Moonlight" is adapted from. "Moonlight" is about a boy growing up in a Miami housing project. His mother is addicted to drugs. McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the housing project where the movie's set, but they didn't know each other back then. When we left off, we were talking about their own mothers who were addicted to crack and the impact their mother's addictions had on them when they were boys. 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 - 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, I was - 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 - I felt unworthy. And I - that later translated to a sort of disconnect where I couldn't - 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 I was - 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 - 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.
GROSS: So each of you, your mothers had AIDS.
JENKINS: My mother's HIV positive and has been for, I want to say 25 now and went through many of the same things that Tarell just described of his mom, which, again, is why so much of this just felt so personal to me. You know, when the play came to me, it was said, you know, this isn't about you, but it's about you. And I think - and for that reason, you know, I think my mom was a victim of sexual assault also at a very young age.
I've never had any ill will towards her. And if there were any ill feelings that came from the saga of my family - because I feel much worse for my brother and my sister, who actually had, you know, a very conscious, you know, memory or experience of living with my mom, you know, as this fully functional adult, you know, as a caregiver and a caretaker. And I just do not have those memories, but I also know the history of how these things came to be.
And so if there was ever any ill feeling, I think, like Tarell, I just channeled them inward, you know? You know, I for a long time felt like I was, you know, unworthy of love and that I couldn't function in a relationship and that there was something about me, you know, in my DNA that I could not function in these relationships. And it's why the character resonated so much with me. Yeah. Terry, you're a tough one. You're just going in right now.
GROSS: Am I going too far? Is that...
JENKINS: No, no, no, no. This is why we're here.
GROSS: My guests are Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed the new film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play that "Moonlight" is adapted from. We'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed the new film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play that "Moonlight" is adapted from. "Moonlight" is about a boy growing up in a Miami housing project. His mother is addicted to drugs. McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the housing project where the movie's set, but they didn't know each other back then. Barry, you shot the movie or, you know, a lot of the movie in the housing project that you both grew up in, in Liberty City in Miami. Did you need to get the permission of residents to shoot there? Like, what did you need to do to set up there?
JENKINS: We did. You know, so Liberty City is a neighborhood. The housing project that we filmed in is called Liberty Square or the Pork and Beans...
MCCRANEY: The Pork and Beans...
JENKINS: ...If you're from the city.
MCCRANEY: ...That's right.
JENKINS: And we did have to get permission. You know, I had to prove that I had lived there, you know, that my family had lived there because, you know, the only things that film in Miami these days are these sort of - these A&E cop shows, like "The First 48." And the people from the neighborhood felt like, you know, we don't want these outsiders coming in here, you know, to tell these untruths or these half truths about us. And so, yeah, they had to become reacquainted with Mr. Barry Jenkins (laughter), and I had to prove that I was once just B.J. - or Knees was my nickname when I lived in the neighborhood...
JENKINS: ...Because I always had ashy knees...
MCCRANEY: Shut up. Knees?
JENKINS: Yeah, yeah, my nickname was Knees, yeah. But you know what? It was...
GROSS: How did people see your knees? Were you wearing shorts a lot?
JENKINS: Yeah. I mean, it's so hot in Miami...
GROSS: Of course, right. OK...
JENKINS: Yeah, we were always wearing shorts.
MCCRANEY: Yeah, you're never wearing...
JENKINS: Always wearing shorts.
MCCRANEY: ...Aww, Knees.
JENKINS: Yeah, yeah. And so it was this amazing process where the main - one of the main producers on the project, Adele Romanski, she and I went there over the course of, like, 9, 12 months doing local casting, you know, trying to, you know, get - have the neighborhood get reacquainted with us and also, you know, for me. I'd been away from Miami for so long - to get reacquainted with the neighborhood. And by the time it came to production - you know, the first week there were questions. Who are you? Why are you here? And then by the second week, it was like, oh, OK, these guys are still around. They must mean business. And then by the third week, it was like, oh, hey, Barry, welcome back. You see that guy? He's from the neighborhood.
You know, and the kids would come and sit at video village. You know, at a lot of these - on these street corners, you know, the dealers, they shoot out the street lights, you know, so they can handle their transactions, and we're here with our movie lights. And so, you know, a lot of the parents were like, oh, I'm so glad you guys are here. The kids can come out and play at night because you guys have all these lights. And it became this thing where over the course of - we shot for 25 days over the five weeks - I think the neighborhood really took ownership of the production, by which I mean they began to protect the production and their faces and their voices.
You know, the first voice you hear in "Moonlight" is not an actor. You know, it's a guy who came into the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center and sat down for an audition. And, Tarell, you can correct me if I got that wrong. It's always so many letters. And I felt it was important that the neighborhood be the first one to speak in "Moonlight." And so some people might need subtitles for the first, like, five minutes because it's a very thick Miami accent. But, you know, we felt it was important that the neighborhood have the first say.
GROSS: So you're talking about one of the corner guys, who's, like, selling the drugs for the drug dealer?
JENKINS: Exactly, exactly.
GROSS: Yeah, so...
JENKINS: You know, we open with an out-in-the-open-air sort of transaction, you know, the business of Juan, you know, this one side of Juan's personality. And I wanted to open the film with a continuous moment of time just to show when Juan and Little meet, that it's faded in a certain way. And so I didn't want any editorial juxtaposition to sort of frame that cross. I wanted it to be an extended moment of time in the voice of the neighborhood, in the environment of the neighborhood.
MCCRANEY: And there were lots of people who called me and kept trying to be in the film. I mean, my aunt is - was the president - is the president of the redevelopment Council in Liberty Square. She still lives there with my cousins. And when she told me that Barry and Adele came into the to the - (laughter) into the Pork and Beans, she - you know, I had people - I had cousins being like, OK, so you're going to put me in the film? And I'm like, look, that's not my job. Barry's casting it.
MCCRANEY: It's like - like, I didn't - I don't have anything to do with it, just ask Barry. I wrote - yeah, it's based on something that I wrote. That's true. But don't try to get me in trouble with Barry talking about Tarell said I could be in this film. So it was - it was one of those moments where I really felt, like, proud that my - that, you know, it was your cousins who were like, oh, you're doing that art thing. Hey, let me be a part of this art thing as well.
JENKINS: No, exactly - that's exactly what it was. At first, it's like who are these weird dudes making this weird art? And then it's like, oh, can I help you with that art thing? Exactly.
GROSS: (Laughter) Was being into an art thing just considered weird when you were young?
JENKINS: You know, I never was in Miami. That's why this project was such a homecoming/rude awakening for me. My art has always been so distinctly separate from my life in Miami, and this was more or less the first time I've ever incorporated anything from my actual life story in my work. So - so no, I was never an artist in Miami. I was hiding behind athletics and all my jockitude (ph), so I didn't have to deal with being ostracized as the weird art kid.
MCCRANEY: If you were really good at art in Liberty City, whatever it was, even if it was dance, if you were the best at it - you had to be the best. You had to be the best. Of course, people make fun of you for doing art, but that's in any neighborhood. But if you were the supreme of it, they didn't - you would always get the respect of everybody in the neighborhood for it. And I don't know why that was the case.
But I just remember there was a kid who, you know, had - was effeminate but could dance. I mean, he went on to be, you know, in Alvin Ailey, went on to be, you know, just a superstar. And people just gave him that respect because they knew he could dance. They knew he had that ability. And so, you know, if you - if you came from - if you were the best at something, people gave you your respect.
GROSS: Well, I hope this isn't too much to ask, but I love the way you interact with each other. So I'm hoping that you stay friends and that you get to collaborate with each other on something else. Is that too much...
JENKINS: Very much so...
GROSS: ...To ask? (Laughter).
JENKINS: No, I love Tarell. And I'll say this on FRESH AIR with Terry Gross, you know, the beauty of working with Tarell and knowing Tarell is he has provided the space for me to come out of retirement as a filmmaker but also to come out of my shell and actually be open and honest about some of these things that we've talked about, about our moms and about growing up and just feeling not whole. And so I thank you, my brother, for helping me feel whole. And, yeah, we will definitely remain friends.
MCCRANEY: For sure. We have no choice.
GROSS: Good. It's been such a pleasure to talk with you, and congratulations on "Moonlight." It's a wonderful film. Thank you so much.
JENKINS: Thank you.
MCCRANEY: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the new film "Moonlight." It's adapted from a play by Tarell McCraney. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Charlie Brooker, the creator and primary writer of "Black Mirror," the British TV series inspired by dystopian sci-fi shows like "The Twilight Zone" but set in the digital era.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRROR")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Pick a target.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) To post their name and photo with hashtag, press 2 now.
GROSS: Season 3 of "Black Mirror" will be on Netflix Friday. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.