Coming out wasn't easy for Tarell Alvin McCraney. The playwright, born and raised in Liberty City, has earned a MacArthur Fellowship with plays about Hurricane Katrina, the projects of Louisiana, and adaptations of Hamlet. But he'd never found a way to tell his own tale of coming to terms with his sexuality.
"I wrote a play called Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, and Marcus has this really sweet coming-out story. He comes out, his mom is angry, he cries a little bit, but then he meets this guy and his friends are all like, 'We love you, Marcus,'" McCraney recalls, laughing. "Everyone kept asking me, 'Is Marcus' experience your experience?' And I was like, 'Hell, no.'"
Moonlight, on the other hand, tells a far more personal story. Opening Friday in theaters across the nation, the film follows a black man named Chiron as he comes to understand his sexuality and tries to find a place in the world. Based on McCraney's unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and directed by fellow Liberty City native Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is a movie in three acts, showing Chiron as a child, a teenager, and an adult. McCraney calls the film "a beautiful nightmare," based on "one of the most personal pieces I've written and certainly the most autobiographical."
"Moonlight was me trying to talk about me being a person and manhood in general, so I couldn't leave that portion of the story out if I tried," McCraney says, referring to his own sexuality. But he's aware that his rough upbringing in the projects is not something every person goes through: "This is not every gay person's story or even every gay person in the hood's story. This is my story specifically."
But though Moonlight's plot offers a singular perspective, the project also represents the city's growing influence in film circles nationwide. McCraney and Jenkins' collaboration has wowed audiences at festivals from New York to Toronto to London; some critics are already predicting Oscar nominations. That's a level of praise not often bestowed upon a film made in Miami, about Miami, by Miami filmmakers.
Even the catalysts who brought Jenkins and McCraney together are local. Andrew Hevia and Lucas Leyva, of the Miami film collective Borscht Corporation, read the script for In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, then passed it on to Jenkins, who was in the city working on his Borscht short film Chlorophyl.
"I think the reason why Andrew and Lucas thought of me was because not a lot of people knew my story at that point," Jenkins says about growing up in the projects. "They saw the overlap and realized Tarell's piece would connect with me in the way that it did. I imagine when they read it, it was just lightning in a bottle, because there are specific elements from both our lives that we can't make up."
The result is one of the only films that highlights Miami and all its beauty, even as it tells a wrenching, sometimes violent story. "As a visual storyteller, I think that sound and image carry a voice, so it's really important to me how a film looks. And with this one, at the very beginning I saw shiny people and I saw really bright light," Jenkins says about the look of the film. "I was asked once, 'Were you ever afraid you were making a movie that was too beautiful because the subject matter was too heavy?' And I was like, 'Miami is a beautiful place. I remember green grass and bright lights, and to have tried to remove those things in service of a dark story would have been immoral.'?"
That commitment to authenticity guided Jenkins throughout the film. In adapting McCraney's story, Jenkins admits, "I don't think I could have written this thing without Tarell. And there's a couple of key scenes that I really went to the ends of the Earth to preserve, because it came from a first-person experience that I didn't have... I thought about it a lot at the outset, but once I felt like there was a concrete way where I could preserve Tarell's voice, but also take ownership of it at the same time, I didn't worry about it again."
The actors who portrayed Chiron felt similarly. Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as an adult, bluntly states, "I don't feel like there's a difference. I would be the same exact person if I were attracted to men, so I always get confused when people ask about being a heterosexual man playing a homosexual man."
For Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron as a teenager, there was a lot in McCraney's story that he found easy to relate to, especially Chiron's struggle with his drug-addicted mother. "Reading the script, I immediately was like, Damn, this is gonna be therapy for me if I take this part, because I've been dealing with drug addiction with my mother my entire life," Sanders says.
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But for McCraney, it's Alex Hibbart, the child actor who plays Chiron in his youth, who inspires him to expose this personal story to moviegoers nationwide. "I was thinking about them taking on these roles and... the bravery of Alex Hibbert, who was 10 at the time," he explains. "To jump into that role and to play that part, to me, just makes me feel so secure that this is worth sharing. If he can be that brave, why can't I?
"It's like they say in church: If a robin can say thank you, you can too."
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, and Duan Sanderson. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins. 100 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, October 28, at O Cinema Wynwood, Regal South Beach Stadium 18, and AMC Aventura 24. McCraney will participate in postfilm discussions after the 7 p.m. screenings Friday, October 28, and Saturday, October 29, at O Cinema Wynwood.