‘Moonlight’ Director Barry Jenkins Refused to Sanitize Film for ‘Respectability’ (Video)

TheWrap Screening Series: Coming-of-age story didn’t hold back uncomfortable truths to appeal to audiences

Barry Jenkins’ film “Moonlight” is a no-holds-barred coming-of-age story about love and identity that follows Chiron, a gay black man growing up in Miami with a drug-addicted mother.

At a Q&A following a screening of the film in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jenkins told TheWrap Senior Entertainment Reporter Matt Donnelly he had no intention of softening its hard edges to appeal to different sensitivities — because it wouldn’t do justice to the story. “Moonlight,” from independent studio A24, is based on “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” a semi-autographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and includes elements from Jenkins’ childhood as well.

British actress Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s mother Paula and initially had concerns about the role, wanting only to portray positive images of black women. But Jenkins was able to convince her by telling Harris he wanted to create “productive images,” not necessarily “positive ones” — images that are faithful to his and McCraney’s life experiences.

“I was aware of the sensitivity to the character,” Jenkins said. “But I was also aware the character wasn’t a character — it was my mom, it was Tarell’s mom. And to remove that element of my biography from this very personal story would have been to cave to some sense of shame or respectability politics.”

“It would have been to lie about what’s possible for people who go through that experience,” Jenkins continued. “Tarell’s the head of the Yale School of Drama playwriting program and his mom was addicted to crack cocaine. I’m talking to all you lovely well-employed people in Hollywood and my mom was addicted to crack cocaine. I’m not going to take that out of my story in service of some level of respectability or this or that. And I had the same conversation with Naomie.”

And Jenkins said none of Paula’s histrionics in the movie were embellished for dramatic effect.

“There isn’t a scene with Naomie in the film that didn’t happen to me or Tarell,” Jenkins said.

The director shared a few lighter moments from filming, including a scene in which Juan, the drug dealer played by Mahershala Ali who befriends and looks out for young Little, teaches the kid how to swim in the ocean. That wasn’t acting.

“Alex Hibbert did not know how to swim when we made the film,” Jenkins said. “Mahershala Ali actually taught him how to swim as you were watching the scene. Thirty minutes later we film him looking back at you guys, and I can even feel that he’s gained some sort of completeness or self-sustainability in that look.”

Watch the video above.