In the early 1980s, Liberty City was in trouble.
The blight-stricken district of Miami was one of many inner-city neighborhoods that had succumbed to the dual epidemics of crack and HIV-AIDS. At the same time, it was tugged by the terrible riptide of desegregation: the abandonment of historically black areas by educated and affluent African-Americans.
As the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted in a New York Times op-ed, “Residential segregation, the fact that poor blacks tend to live with poor blacks, [was] compounded by desegregation, which ended up separating the black poor and the black middle class.”
The gun violence and gang warfare that would erupt later, decimating families and entire communities, had yet to reach the dizzying levels that they eventually would (in the first seven months of 2014 alone, some 43 people residing in a few blocks of Liberty City were shot and seven killed). But to anyone living there at the dawn of the drug age — even a boy with nothing to compare it to — something was obviously amiss.
Barry Jenkins was such a boy. The writer-director, now 36, was born in Liberty City in 1979, and witnessed its decline and fall.
“There were a lot of people whose family members were addicted to drugs, and the neighborhood was so small that you’d see them around,” he recalls. “It was such a raging epidemic that lots of people’s mothers and fathers were on crack. There was even a song at the time, ‘Your Mama’s on Crack Rock.’ The chorus went, ‘Yo‘ mama’s on crack rock! Not my mama. Yo’ mama’s on crack rock!'”
Jenkins’ mother, a nurse, was indeed on crack rock. As a child, he could never remember a time when she wasn’t.
“My mom became addicted very early in my life, [when I was] maybe 2, maybe 3 years old,” says Jenkins. “I was very aware of it, but I created this version of myself where it didn’t seem to affect me: ‘Nothing’s going to affect me going through life.’ It was a complicated childhood, though it wasn’t till I was 23 or 24 that I realized how complicated it was. I’d see my mom around the neighborhood [in a drug-induced state]. That was a head trip.”
Who knows the full impact this must have had on him, but he emerged strong enough to put himself through film school at Florida State University, and then move on to a career in film.
“I kept to myself,” he says. “I was a homebody. I would go to school, come home and listen to music or space out. I was very content to sit back and watch everybody. I felt that was the only way I could protect myself. Because even as a kid, you realize: Something is f—ed up right now.”
That “f—ed up” something is the subject of Moonlight, a low-budget film that has become a sensation following its Telluride debut. The New York Times asked rhetorically, “Is this the year’s best movie?”
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which Jenkins rewrote for the screen, the film tells the story of a boy not unlike Jenkins himself (played as a child by Alex Hibbert) who escapes his mother by seeking refuge in an abandoned house. There he’s found by an empathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes the silent child home and cares for him overnight. That’s the beginning of a relationship that will transform the boy’s life, as he finds some form of love in a place that has given him none.
Jenkins tells this story with daring leaps and bounds, jump-cutting from the child to his teenage self (Ashton Sanders) and then jump-cutting again to his older self (Trevante Rhodes).
He’s equally daring in his unwillingness to pander to narrative expectations. Just as we fall in love with Juan, Jenkins removes him from the story. He exits the tale off-camera, and we only learn what has happened through a brief snippet of dialogue. Imagine the response that would have gotten inside a studio.
Jenkins is at his boldest in the ways he handles familiar tropes. Drug-dealing and prostitution are facts of life here, but the movie’s real concern lies elsewhere — in our hero’s discovery that he’s gay. Moonlight begins with the discovery of one kind of love, and ends with the discovery of another.
All this is suffused in images of startling beauty, even as the source of their beauty is bleak. At one point, the boy’s hand wafts from a car window, barely remaining upright and ever on the brink of toppling over — just as the boy risks toppling over in life. At another point, he is taken to the sea, where Juan cradles him in the crystalline waters in a form of baptism that’s all the subtler for never being stated.
Hints of a holy spirit seep through the film, pervading even the classically infused score; it’s no coincidence that a key cue is Mozart’s Laudate Dominum — or Praise the Lord.
Whether the movie will be praised by the Academy remains an open question.
Earlier this year, the organization made headlines when not a single person of color received an acting nomination — the same thing had happened the previous year, when the best picture lineup featured only one African-American-themed film, Selma.
Back then, I didn’t join the critics who leaped on the Academy’s back, flaying it with that cat o’ nine tails commonly referred to as social media. It seemed unfair to lambaste the organization two years after 12 Years a Slave was named best picture, or to single it out for problems created way upstream, by the studios that greenlight most major pictures.
Unlike many, I didn’t feel Selma deserved more nominations than it received. It was exceptionally well-made, but it seemed to lack the depth and originality of 12 Years.
Since then, the Academy has moved forward in fits and starts, bringing in hundreds of diverse members and creating a new program to provide industry internships for dozens of minority students each year. And yet it still must prove that the central allegation against it was wrong: That it is unwilling to give full recognition to minority and LGBT-themed films.
Now it has a chance to make good.
Moonlight doesn’t preach the sort of anti-racist message that made In the Heat of the Night more palatable to Academy members; nor does it offer the kind of kumbaya sentiment of Driving Miss Daisy or The Color Purple. Instead, like all great art, it challenges our notions of good and bad, of black and white, of the places we’d rather avoid and the people we’d rather not meet.
Its story may be sprinkled with drug dealers and addicts. But its message is clear: The world is richer and deeper and more complex than we ever imagined, and even its most troubled characters — just like us — are looking for love.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.