Spanning two decades, Moonlight tells the heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life. Though intimate in focus–centering on one character–the movie is epic in ambition, scale, and depth. And though it’s is grounded in a particular economic context and social class, the journey of this boy/man has universal meaning due to the ways in which his falling in love and having sex for the first time are depicted, with all the ecstasy, pain and beauty involved in these processes.
Anchored by astonishing performances and the singular vision of filmmaker Barry Jenkins, MOONLIGHT is a groundbreaking exploration of masculinity — a sensual, intoxicating piece of cinema that uncovers deep truths about the moments that define us, the people who shape us most, and the ache of love that can last a lifetime.
Arriving eight years after his critically acclaimed romance MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, writer-director Barry Jenkins returns with another deeply felt feature. The tale follows one young man’s tumultuous coming age in South Florida over the course of two decades.
The multi-layered drama intersects the crucial factors of race, sexuality, masculinity, identity, family and love, and how they shape our everyday lives.
MOONLIGHT establishes Jenkins as a major American filmmaker for his ability to capture the pure feeling of longing and heartache playing out over the years.
Featuring a trio of gifted actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) inhabiting a single character during three phases of his life, MOONLIGHT tells the story of one young man’s coming of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.
As Chiron grows from an uncertain and tentative boy into a bullied teenager grappling with his sexuality and finally into a grown man, Jenkins skillfully shows through three distinct chapters a life in full, revealing how the powerful moments in each of our lives coalesce to shape our identities and define our fates.
The stunning supporting ensemble is headed by Naomie Harris (SPECTRE, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END) — playing with tough, impassioned grace a crackaddicted single mother trying to raise her young son amid tempestuous personal struggles.
Janelle Monáe (making her feature debut) André Holland (SELMA, 42, “The Knick”) and Mahershala Ali (a recent Emmy nominee for “House of Cards” and one of the stars of Netflix’s upcoming “MARVEL’S Luke Cage”), embody the indelible mentors who help nurture Chiron across the turbulent years.
THE ROOTS OF MOONLIGHT
MOONLIGHT was conceived in drama school as a class project by the esteemed playwright and Miami native Tarell Alvin McCraney, a MacArthur genius grant recipient in 2013 and a member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, whose “Brother/Sister” trilogy of plays set in a Louisiana housing project placed him in the front rank of playwrights writing on the African American experience. He submitted the short work — titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” — to the Borscht Film Festival in Miami, dedicated to showcasing works by regional artists forging the cinematic identity of Miami through stories that “go beyond the typical portrayal of a beautiful but vapid party town.” Heading off to London for a writing residency with the Royal Shakespeare Company, McCraney all but forgot about the piece.
In 2013, producer Adele Romanski (MORRIS FROM AMERICA, THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER) was helping Jenkins sift through feature film projects for his eagerly anticipated follow-up to MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY. The duo, friends since college, began holding bi-weekly meetings where they volleyed ideas back and forth until a dozen solid ideas took shape. One of them was McCraney’s evocation of his own Miami youth, which had fallen into Jenkins’ hands through a Borscht collective member. “Tarell did a great job of capturing what it felt like to be a poor black kid growing up in the Miami projects,” Jenkins explains. “I saw it as an opportunity to get some of my own childhood memories out of my head and onto the screen, filtered through Tarell’s wonderful voice. The root of his experience was also the root of my experience — it was the perfect marriage.”
By coincidence Jenkins came of age in the same rough and tumble Liberty City housing projects where McCraney grew up, and where much of MOONLIGHT the film unfolds. He also contributed work to the Borscht Film Festival — Jenkins’ 2013 short film “Chlorophyl” was a sprawling 17-minute evocation of his native Miami emphasizing changes wrought through urban renewal. The short film incorporated some of the same themes as MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, including displacement, gentrification and
yearning for love and connection amid urban anomie.
Jenkins and McCraney did not know each other as children but their formative years were remarkably similar. They attended the same elementary and middle schools (despite a difference in age) and both went on to become artists, treating subjects and themes close to their own experiences, including themes of identity and masculinity. Most notably, both grew up in households in which their mothers grappled with severe drug addiction. Jenkins’ mother survived her battle and has remained HIV positive for 24 years, while McCraney’s mother ultimately succumbed from AIDS as a result of her struggles.
McCraney’s original piece was rooted in the relationship between a young Liberty City boy and a local drug dealer, who becomes a kind of surrogate father as the boy contends with bullying, his mother’s addiction and a pervasive feeling of loneliness and otherness that ultimately ends in tragedy. Jumping back and forth between youth and adolescence, yet deeply rooted in themes of masculinity, identity and community, the non-linear “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” examined the burgeoning gay sexuality of its protagonist Chiron coming of age in a challenging milieu. “It was important to me to show from the beginning how the community is active in Chiron’s life,” McCraney says. “The community knows things about him before he knows them about himself. People want to place him in a category before he even understands what that means. This happens to all of us, whether we’re male, female, black, white, straight or gay. There are moments when our community decides to tell us what they see us as. How we respond to that makes our struggle very real, and deeply influences how our lives unfold.”
For his adaptation, Jenkins set about broadening the story’s three chapters, expanding on an adult interlude in Chiron’s life that was a mere phone call in McCraney’s source material, and giving equal shrift to three distinct eras in his young protagonist’s journey from childhood to adulthood. MOONLIGHT opens with Chiron at age 10 (nicknamed Little in the movie), fleeing from bullies in his housing project until he is rescued by the drug dealer Juan, who becomes his mentor and unofficial guardian with the help of his saintly girlfriend Teresa. In the second chapter, Chiron grapples with young love in the
form of his teenage schoolmate Kevin, the declining state of his mother Paula and a traumatic schoolyard incident that changes the course of his life. The third chapter follows Chiron in adulthood — now known by his street name Black — contending with the thwarted love that has hindered his identity through his inability to express his feelings. In a virtuoso sequence set in a Miami diner, Chiron reunites with Kevin in a thoroughly unforgettable and unexpected way.
After reading Jenkins’ adaptation, Romanski was immediately captivated by the script’s highly emotional take on coming of age under fire. Although MOONLIGHT is set in a very specific place, its themes apply to anyone who has ever felt out of place in the world. “The script broke my heart,” Romanski shares. “Chiron’s story was something I could identify with even as a white female. A lot of people across race, gender, age and sexuality can identify with feeling ‘other.’ While MOONLIGHT is in essence a gay, black coming of age drama, the core of its story is the universality of its otherness.”
One of the most powerful aspects of MOONLIGHT is that it was conceived in cinematic form by a straight man working from material rooted in the personal experiences of an openly gay man — yet the film’s sexuality is not its centerpiece or defining feature, owing to Jenkins’ penchant for subtlety and introspection over telegraphed moments or sermonizing. Ultimately, MOONLIGHT transcends labels or definitions, telling a universal story through one young man’s cathartic personal struggles. “Barry is a very introverted and private person,” Romanski explains. “He doesn’t show much of himself outside a core group of people he trusts. MOONLIGHT allowed him to tell a story that is unique to his own upbringing and history — yet he was able to access it through an adapted work that was Tarell’s story.”
Producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, Co-Presidents of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, had been fans of Jenkins since MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, which both praise for its emotionally rich complexity and luminous cinematic beauty. The Plan B executives started their relationship with Jenkins soon after the release of MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, but it was at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival that their
collaboration on this project started to firmly take root. Plan B was premiering 12 YEARS A SLAVE at the festival, and coincidentally Jenkins was the moderator at a post-screening Q&A with that film’s director, Steve McQueen. After spending time together in Telluride, Kleiner, Gardner, and Jenkins renewed discussions about working together, leading to Jenkins and Romanski bringing Plan B the script to MOONLIGHT when they decided that it would be their next project.
Kleiner and Gardner were deeply moved by what they read. “The writing was incredibly beautiful and like its predecessor possessed a notable elegance and simplicity in its structure,” Kleiner shares. “Barry has the remarkable ability to create and capture intimate spaces between characters — specifically two characters. He penetrates interior emotional states in a way you don’t see coming and suddenly you’re in the depths of the human heart.” Adds Gardner: “Barry is someone who believes that whole worlds collide in the space of one conversation. It takes a skillful writer-director to bring that alive on the screen.” Plan B signed on shortly after reading, and financing on MOONLIGHT was completed in early 2015, when A24 made their first foray into production and got behind the project.
BUILDING THE CAST
Casting MOONLIGHT began with Jenkins’ bold decision to show Chiron’s progression during various stages of his young life beginning at age ten and extending into his early 30s, without aging a single actor through the course of the film’s three chapters. This considerable challenge required the casting team to find three distinct actors who could convey the same inner feeling across multiple years without ever meeting during the course of filming. To bring Chiron to life in triplicate, Jenkins turned to Los Angelesbased casting director Yesi Ramirez (21 JUMP STREET, BLOOD DIAMOND, LORDS OF DOGTOWN), who also hails from Miami. In a previous career, Ramirez was studying to be a juvenile public defender and worked frequently with at-risk children in California, lending her insight into troubled youth. “That’s what pulled me into the script,” Ramirez comments. “Chiron needed someone to help him along in life. I’ve
known these kids. I’ve worked with them.”
The filmmakers knew from the start that whoever played Little needed to be a Miami local. Jenkins and Romanski combed the streets of the city posting casting notices and going into schools and neighborhoods in search of a young man who could embody this crucial role. Ultimately they discovered Hibbert and put him on tape for others to see; when Ramirez viewed the audition she was immediately impressed by the quiet curiosity and intense vulnerability that manifested itself in his very young eyes. Everyone felt confident that he was the one.
For Chiron at age 16, Ramirez scouted teenagers all over the country, reviewing audition tapes and headshots and scanning the Internet for video clips of students who were graduating from high school performing arts programs. In the end the filmmakers chose Ashton Sanders, who Ramirez first discovered during one of her numerous Los Angeles casting sessions. Sanders had appeared in a previous independent film and had a brief role in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, but he stood out for his stillness and impassivity, crucial attributes for Chiron in the film’s second chapter.
Trevante Rhodes, a former track and field star from Louisiana who was discovered by a casting agent on his Texas college campus and immediately cast in a Nicolas Cage film, had originally read for the role of the adult Kevin in the film’s evocative third chapter. But his reading was interrupted by the casting team, including Ramirez, Jenkins and Romanski, when it dawned on everyone at once that the muscular, intensely masculine Rhodes was more suited for the role of Black, Chiron’s street-savvy adult incarnation. Like a lightning bolt, the relatively unknown actor shot into a lead role that required him to carry the weight of all three Chirons. “It’s not often as a casting director that I feel so strongly about an actor just by him walking in the room, but Trevante was special,” Ramirez recounts. “In addition to his masculinity, he possessed that vulnerability we needed so crucially for the audience to feel something for this character.”
In a feat of serendipitous casting, the three Chirons connect seamlessly across the three
chapters despite the fact that Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes don’t entirely resemble one another, and never met during filming. “We got lucky because we found the best actors for each part,” Ramirez says. “But they also had the common thread that pulled the three different stages together, which was an intense vulnerability. Each actor could express it in his eyes, helping to create a complete picture of this character’s life.” Adds Jenkins: “You don’t see black males on screen where they’re just allowed to emote instead of talking or being active all the time. All three actors were great at emoting.”
For Rhodes the biggest challenge inhabiting Chiron as an adult came in staying true to the character’s deeply concealed emotional core despite physical “armor” like muscles and grills, and a decidedly opaque street name. “Black is an introverted, troubled man who is hiding his true self from the world because he’s frightened of letting people know who he really is,” explains Rhodes. “The title MOONLIGHT refers to shining light in the darkness or illuminating things you’re afraid to show. Everybody in life has had a struggle like Chiron’s at some point, whether it’s for a short period of time or an entire lifetime. Anyone who insists they haven’t put up a façade is living in some kind of darkness.”
At its heart, MOONLIGHT is a story about masculinity and how it’s expressed in a specific community like the Liberty City housing project in Miami, where much of the movie was filmed. In this milieu, criminal life routinely overlaps with everyday domestic life and paternal figures come to take on the ambiguous qualities of provider and supplier. In the case of Juan, the local drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing while quietly supplying his mother with crack cocaine, the role required an actor who appeared ferocious on the surface but harbored kindness and nurturing underneath. “There are so many different layers to a character like Juan,” Jenkins explains. “I’m examining black masculinity in this movie, but on a deeper level I’m exploring inner city impoverished black masculinity. We needed someone who could be menacing one moment and extremely caring the next.”
The filmmakers found their Juan in the Oakland-born stage and screen actor Mahershala
Ali, whose most visible role to date is playing the lobbyist and former press secretary Remy Danton on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” and whose other works include this year’s FREE STATE OF JONES, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY and Netflix’s forthcoming “MARVEL’s Luke Cage” series. Romanski had just finished working with Ali on another production, Justin Tipping’s KICKS, and had been deeply impressed with his work; while filming she thought of him for the role of Juan, and mentioned to him she had a project she was hoping to share with him as soon as it was ready.
In a brief yet astonishing performance, Ali in the guise of Juan imparts valuable information to Chiron that helps him survive inside and out through the years — until he comes to embody a version of Juan in his adult life. “He’s the father figure to Little, which is important because you want to feel like Little has someone guiding him through life,” Ramirez explains. “There’s also this dangerous level to Juan, which isn’t what you associate with paternal figures. Mahershala is a very intense, emotional actor, but he also has this ability to comfort.”
Showing a different side of masculinity in the quietly explosive third chapter of MOONLIGHT is the actor André Holland (“The Knick,” SELMA, 42), whose luminous and serene performance as the adult Kevin brings a sense of comfort and ease that ultimately helps Chiron emerge from his shell. Early in the casting process Holland — who has appeared in several of McCraney’s plays, including the Brother/Sister trilogy — was considered for the role of Juan. But the multi-faceted stage and screen actor submitted an audition tape as Kevin that reduced the casting team to tears, making it instantly clear where the performer’s strengths were best utilized. “André is so comfortable in his skin as an actor, signaling a way out for Chiron through his openness and giving nature,” Jenkins explains. “Black is thrown a lifeline by the one person he’s allowed himself to be intimate with, and through André’s soulfulness, he attains a kind of freedom. Kevin is saying to his old friend, I’m not going to push you, I’m not going to force you, I’m just going to offer you this light…”
The last of the male actors to be cast in MOONLIGHT proved to be the most difficult,
owing to the frank sexuality depicted in the film’s second chapter between teenage friends Kevin — who is more experienced — and Chiron, who is only beginning to grapple with his sexuality. Ramirez auditioned hundreds of actors for the promiscuous, freewheeling Kevin, considering rappers, musicians, up-and-coming actors and non-professionals alike, with no Kevin in sight. Nearing production, in a state of desperation, she turned to the Internet and found upstart actor Jharrel Jerome in the theater program of LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York City, where he was just graduating. “A lot of great actors come out of that school and he had already turned 18,” Ramirez explains. “It was a relief to find someone we really liked instead of having to settle.”
TWO VERY DIFFERENT MATERNAL FIGURES
Balancing out the masculinity on display in MOONLIGHT is a pair of roles by women that are disparate yet similar, encompassing different sides of motherhood and brought to life with unifying passion by a big-screen newcomer and a seasoned professional. British actress Naomie Harris plays Chiron’s mother Paula during three stages in a frenzied life ravaged by drug addiction. In the first chapter, Paula is a seemingly overprotective single mother who tries to shield her son from the local drug dealer Juan. In the second chapter, she is a full-fledged addict, neglecting Chiron’s needs in the service of her next fix. In the final chapter, she reconciles with the adult Chiron after years of estrangement.
Harris had hovered on Ramirez’s casting radar since the early 2000’s, when the actress drew raves for her visceral work in Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER, a role that required both physical and emotional expression. “I’ve never watched any of her movies thinking that’s Naomie simply playing a role,” Ramirez comments. “She truly embodies every character she plays, whether it’s a detective in AFTER THE SUNSET or a seafaring goddess in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. That quality was important for Paula because you have to believe this woman is going through these struggles — and at the same time sympathize with her because she’s a single working mother with a young son.”
For Harris, a Cambridge-educated actress doesn’t drink, smoke or use drugs, it was an emotionally wrenching experience to immerse herself into such a troubled and complex character. “I had to make up a lot of her story in my mind to bring her to life,” Harris says. “Paula is a working woman who isn’t just dabbling in drugs. She’s severely addicted and over time becomes a crack addict. She constantly chooses her addiction over her own son. One of the most important things in playing any character is learning to empathize with her. You have to find a deep connection and understanding for the choices made by someone like Paula in order to bring her thoroughly and effectively to life.”
Harris prepared for the role by studying the lives and mannerisms of drug addicts from the era of Jenkins’ and McCraney’s childhood, when crack use in the United States was at its apex. Many of the addicts were women who also dabbled in prostitution or had experienced sexual abuse. “They used drugs to numb themselves against the deep emotional wounds and trauma they’d been through,” Harris explains. “You could see how much the drugs transformed them, and how the real person inside became deeply hidden. I found it much easier to empathize with Paula when I could see her as someone locked deep within herself.”
In contrast to Paula’s frequently agitated state is the quietly serene, almost saintly Teresa, Juan’s live-in girlfriend who becomes a surrogate mother to Chiron during his formative years. Casting Teresa was another challenge for Ramirez, who adhered to the script and began looking for Latina actors to fill what was originally written to be a CubanAmerican character. “We also thought this would be a great opportunity for someone to come in and play a role that was unexpected,” Ramirez explains. Producer Jeremy Kleiner urged the casting team to consider someone outside the box, in keeping with the film’s defiantly uncategorizable nature. Ramirez put together an extensive list of unconventional choices, and having looked to the music world to fill other roles thought of Janelle Monáe.
An incandescent R&B performer who is frequently compared to James Brown, Monáe showed a different side of her kinetic stage persona after she read for Ramirez on another
project. “She surprised me,” Ramirez says. “She was so emotional, and had this terrific range.” The casting team was impressed by the chameleonic singer’s ability to convey quiet and subdued — not to mention nurturing. “It was so important for Teresa to feel maternal and calming,” Ramirez adds. “Because Paula doesn’t fulfill that role for Chiron.”
MIAMI PLAYS ITSELF
MOONLIGHT also exudes an indelible sense of place, shining its rays on the city of Miami and becoming a distinct character in its own right, much in the same way San Francisco came alive in Jenkins’ previous feature MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY. Many of the people involved with the film, including Jenkins, McCraney, Romanski and Rodriguez, are Florida natives. Each of them has been affected and shaped by Miami in different ways.
For McCraney, the city is a place unlike any other for the way it engulfs and suspends its inhabitants and visitors in a lush embrace. “It’s the only place I understand yet can’t quite fully explain,” McCraney notes. “Miami is inundated with American problems but feels otherworldly because it’s a paradise most of the time. It’s hard to think of our 9-to-5 routines when it’s hot and warm with palm trees swaying all around you. There’s also something timeless about the city, and that’s what MOONLIGHT captures. You experience a cross-section of what Miami truly feels like, without skimping on the fullness of the place.”
For Ramirez, it’s the city’s unique people that stand out most and give the metropolitan area — and MOONLIGHT — its unique flavor. “People in Miami are such distinct characters,” Ramirez explains. “I have vivid memories growing up around so many diverse people and personalities. It’s a welcoming and comforting environment even if you’re a stranger there. Especially when you find common ground with someone.”
For Romanski, who calls Miami “a hugely important character in the movie,” the South Florida light remains one of the city’s most palpable characteristics, bathing the story in
its distinct glow. “Miami light is typically perceived to be harsh because there’s so much direct sunlight,” Romanski explains. “But the humidity and moisture in the air gives it this incredible texture. Combined with the lushness of the surrounding environment, the light becomes achingly beautiful. You can feel it.”
THE LOOK OF MOONLIGHT
Cinematographer James Laxton (CAMP X-RAY, THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER), who attended film school with Jenkins at Florida State University and later shot MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, quickly became enchanted with Miami, warming to its distinctive people, architecture, color schemes, languages, and atmospheric texture, many of which came to influence MOONLIGHT’s intoxicating visual style. “Miami is like a thousand different worlds colliding,” Laxton explains. “The Caribbean and Cuban influences mix with Southern American traditions; wealthy people share space with impoverished people; even the vibrant colors used to paint homes and buildings are unique to the city. In addition, the tropical weather creates an agricultural climate where there is green almost everywhere — it’s almost fluorescent.”
Jenkins knew early on that he wanted to shoot his second feature in Cinemascope, turning to frequent collaborator Laxton to bring to life in the widescreen format the people and places that made MOONLIGHT an emotional powerhouse on the page. “We had a saying between us during filming — this isn’t neorealism,” Jenkins explains. “The story is grounded, but it’s also heightened in many ways. For us the movie is more like a fever dream.” Through the film’s lush cinematography, Laxton finds arresting visual poetry in the emotive faces of the film’s powerhouse cast and a sumptuous urban backdrop that couldn’t be further removed from SCARFACE or MIAMI VICE. He creates wide tableaus around the film’s subjects to suggest the opposite of claustrophobia or restriction — instead, actors feel like they are set adrift in the streets and neighborhoods of a city Jenkins lovingly describes as a flat, wide, endless sprawl with unobstructed views of the sky. “We wanted MOONLIGHT to feel immersive,” Jenkins adds. “Characters often look directly at the viewer, suggesting you are there with them in Miami.”
SHOOTING IN LIBERTY SQUARE
Jenkins and his crew shot MOONLIGHT in an area of Miami known as Liberty Square, part of the greater Liberty City public housing scheme inhabited by Paula and Chiron during the second chapter of the movie. The neighborhood is frequently cited as among the most dangerous in America, having appeared in numerous episodes of the documentary crime series “The First 48” and in the lyrics of hardcore rap combo the 2 Live Crew, whose members came of age in nearby projects. “We wanted to tell an authentic story so we went into neighborhoods and used locations that felt authentic to our characters’ lives,” Romanski notes. “For some of our crew, it was their first time working in a tough neighborhood, even those crewmembers who had lived in Miami for decades.”
For Jenkins, a Liberty City native who left Miami after college to settle on the West Coast, it was important to bring alive the beauty of the surroundings that shaped him as a youth, much in the same way they shape Chiron’s upbringing in the movie. “Liberty City is one of Miami’s most depressed areas, but what you see in the film is its explosive colors,” Jenkins says. “All the buildings are vibrant in beautiful blue, pink and orange pastels. They haven’t been painted in 40 years, but the color is still there.” MOONLIGHT is at times a heavy movie, one that deals with serious issues, but I wanted to capture the unexpected vibrancy of those projects — and how it feels for that Miami light and color to pass through your retina.”
For Laxton, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Florida to attend college, filming in and around Liberty Square was an inspirational experience, with local residents going out of their way to welcome the production. “The people living in that community see a lifetime in ten years in terms of the struggles they face on a daily basis,” Laxton says. “What we try and show in MOONLIGHT is the strength of those communities. It’s a different side of a place most of us have only seen on the evening news in connection with violence or tragedy.”
THE MUSIC OF MOONLIGHT
MOONLIGHT also comes alive through its music, which composer Nicholas Britell (THE BIG SHORT) began writing even before he saw a cut of the movie. Upon reading the script for the first time, Britell was impressed by Jenkins’ penchant for lyricism. “There’s true poetry in the way Barry conceived this movie,” Britell suggests. “There is beauty, intimacy, tenderness and sensitivity to many of the scenes in his script.” He set about capturing these feelings musically, producing an early piece — ‘Chiron’s Theme’ — that became the bedrock of the score, with piano alternating between major and minor chords. “On top of this, a sparse violin plays in counterpoint,” he continues. “I wanted the harmonies to feel like they were subtly exploring emotions at the same time, much like Chiron explores his emotions over the course of the story.”
But this was only the beginning of a long collaborative process between writer-director and composer that went beyond conventional film scoring. After filming was complete, Britell and Jenkins met over the course of several months in the composer’s Lincoln Center studio in New York City to experiment with different and unconventional musical possibilities for the score. “Barry is truly passionate about music and has an immediate instinct for how music works with images,” Britell explains. “We would watch scenes from the movie and explore different musical textures, sounds and ideas. When an idea clicks, you see how it changes your perception of a scene. You really come to feel it.”
Both Britell and Jenkins are passionate about hip-hop music, and Britell was once a keyboardist in a hip-hop band. After Jenkins introduced him to the Southern strain of hiphop known as Chopped and Screwed, Britell set about working the sounds into his own compositions, bending and deepening the existing musical score. “For me, the beauty of hip-hop is the unique sounds that result from sampling records and bending the audio, either through raising or lowering the pitch or increasing or decreasing the tempo of songs,” Britell explains. “In Chopped and Screwed music, the ‘bending’ is really the key — songs are often slowed way down, and the pitch goes down too, so the whole character of a song changes.”
After finishing his compositions, Britell chopped and screwed them, taking cello pieces and turning them into strange bass-like rumblings and bending piano and violin music into wholly new sonic shapes. One notable example of this process occurs in the schoolyard fight scene during MOONLIGHT’s transformative second chapter. The musical score is “Chiron’s Theme” slowed down to such an extent that it sounds more like ominous thunder than any conventional theme. Explains Britell: “It had the powerful effect of musically capturing the way in which Chiron’s world was being turned upside down, distorted into a new shape.”
The music changes with each of Chiron’s incarnations, ultimately unifying the film’s separate chapters through its propulsive, metamorphic force. “When I hear Nick’s score, I see the movie,” Jenkins comments. “He absolutely nailed what this movie feels like. Listening to his work, I envision a 1974 Chevrolet Impala on 28-inch rims drifting down MLK Boulevard blasting Bach, chopped and screwed, all across Liberty Square.”
Ultimately, MOONLIGHT is a universal story of love, family and reconciliation, which through its electrifying atmosphere comes to liberate anyone who has ever felt distinct or apart, or has felt trapped inside their own emotions, yearning for change. Sums up Jenkins: “This is an immersive, experiential film in which characters over time negotiate what they will allow themselves to feel. What they project back to the world with those feelings becomes the universal process of claiming one’s identity. It’s amazing to watch someone yearn for something internally but not have the courage to express it.” MOONLIGHT is an expression of that yearning.
ABOUT THE CAST
NAOMIE HARRIS (Paula) is a London-born actress whose career spans some of the highest grossing blockbuster franchises of all time as well as powerful independent features. She had her first major breakthrough in 2002 with Danny Boyle’s cult classic 28 DAYS LATER, and was nominated soon after for a BAFTA Orange Rising Star for her role as the voodoo witch Tia Dalma in the second and third PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. Since then Harris has gone on to reinvent the iconic role of Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond epic SKYFALL, starring alongside Daniel Craig for director Sam Mendes, which grossed over $1 billion worldwide and won the BAFTA Award for Outstanding British Film as well as two Academy Awards. She then re-teamed with Mr. Mendes and Mr. Craig for the next Bond smash, SPECTRE. In 2013, she was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and two London Critics’ Circle Film Awards for her powerful portrayal of Winnie Mandela in MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, opposite Idris Elba and directed by Justin Chadwick. Among her diverse body of work is Michael Mann’s MIAMI VICE; Susanna White’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR, with Ewan McGregor; Antoine Fuqua’s SOUTHPAW, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal; Andy Serkis’s SEX, DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL, the inspirational THE FIRST GRADER, also directed by Mr. Chadwick; and on stage Danny Boyle’s FRANKENSTEIN at the National Theatre. In December, Harris will star opposite Will Smith in Warner Bros.’ COLLATERAL BEAUTY for director David Frankel. She recently wrapped work on Andy Serkis’ JUNGLE BOOK: ORIGINS for Warner Bros., working in advanced performance-capture alongside Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett.
A graduate of Cambridge University, Harris trained at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
TREVANTE RHODES (Black) was born in Louisiana and moved to Dallas, Texas at the age of four. His acting career began at the University of Texas, where he was also a competitive sprinter on the track and field team. His decision to pursue acting sparked when a casting director noticed him on campus and invited him to audition for a small role in a Nicolas Cage film.
Upon graduation, Rhodes moved to Los Angeles and immediately began working, first appearing in the film OPEN WINDOWS, opposite Elijah Wood, followed by an episode of the Fox series “Gang Related.” He went on to play supporting roles in the independent films SHANGRI-LA SUITE, directed by Eddie O’Keefe, and THE NIGHT IS YOUNG, directed by Matt Jones and Dave Hill.
Rhodes first regarded role was in the Tyler Perry series “If Loving You is Wrong” on the OWN network. The four-episode arc turned into 16 episodes, as audiences quickly fell in love with his character Ramsey, the handsome, sweet-natured boy next door.
Rhodes recently wrapped filming a lead role in the Netflix film BURNING SANDS, produced by Reggie Hudlin, and appears in the A&E pilot “The Infamous,” created by Josh Zetumer.
Rhodes will next be seen in the HBO series “Westworld” and the Terrence Malick film WEIGHTLESS, both scheduled for release in 2016.
ANDRE HOLLAND (Adult Kevin) is a native of Birmingham, Alabama and gained an undergraduate degree from Florida State University before earning an MFA from New York University’s Graduate Acting Program. Shortly after graduation, he received acclaim for his tour-de-force performance as four generations of a family in the play Blue Door at Playwrights Horizons.
Holland starred as Dr. Algeron Edwards in Steven Soderbergh’s critically acclaimed Cinemax series “The Knick,” opposite Clive Owen. He received a 2015 Satellite Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film as well as a 2016 Critics’ Choice Television Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for the role. In 2014, he was seen in Paramount Pictures’ SELMA, based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches and directed by Ava DuVernay. Holland received a 2015 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for his role as Andrew Young. Prior to that he wrapped BLACK & WHITE in which he starred opposite Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer.
In 2013, Holland starred opposite Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman in the hit film 42. His other film credits include BRIDE WARS, Spike Lee’s MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, and the acclaimed 2008 independent film SUGAR, which marked his feature film debut.
Holland made his Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning 2009 revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Belasco Theatre. He more recently starred in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2011 presentation of The Whipping Man at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Also that year, he starred in the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. His offBroadway work also includes The Brother/Sister Plays, Wig Out, and the Shakespeare in the Park presentations of Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Holland’s stage repertoire also includes such plays as Tempest Tossed and Romeo and Juliet, with the NYU/Continuum Company; In the Red and Brown Water at Georgia’s Alliance Theatre; and Andorra, at London’s Young Vic, to name only a few.
Among his television credits are “1600 Penn,” “Damages,” “Burn Notice,” NBC’s “Friends with Benefits,” “Law & Order,” and “The Black Donnellys.”
He currently resides in New York City.
MAHERSHALA ALI (Juan) is fast becoming one of the freshest and most in-demand faces in Hollywood with his extraordinarily diverse skill set and wide-ranging background in film, television, and theater. Ali will next star Netflix and Marvel Entertainment’s “Luke Cage” in the role of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. A Harlem nightclub owner, Stokes will become an unexpected foe in Luke’s life when Stokes’ criminal activities threaten Luke’s world. Ali stars alongside Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, and Alfre Woodard. The series will premiere on Netflix on September 30, 2016.
On the big screen, Ali joins the cast in Theodore Melfi’s HIDDEN FIGURES, opposite Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Kevin Costner, out January 13, 2017 as well as Focus Features’ KICKS which is set to premiere on September 9, 2016.
Ali was most recently seen starring in Gary Ross’s civil war era drama THE FREE STATE OF JONES opposite Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Keri Russell. STX Entertainment released the film on June 24, 2016. Last fall, Ali reprised his role in THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2, the fourth and final installment in the critically and commercially acclaimed HUNGER GAMES franchise, alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, and Julianne Moore. As District 13’s Head of Security, Boggs, Ali guides and protects Katniss (Lawrence) through the final stages of the district’s rebellion against the Capitol. Lionsgate released the film on November 20, 2015. Ali can currently be seen on the award-winning Netflix original series “House of Cards,” where he reprised his fan-favorite role as lobbyist Remy Danton, who went on to become Chief of Staff in the fourth season. He was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on the show.
Ali’s previous feature film credits include Derek Cianfrance’s THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES opposite Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, Wayne Kramer’s CROSSING OVER starring Harrison Ford, John Sayles’ GO FOR SISTERS, and David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. On television, he appeared opposite Julia Ormond in Lifetime’s THE WRONGED MAN, for which he subsequently received a NAACP Nomination for Best Actor. Ali also had a large recurring role on Syfy’s “Alphas,” as well as the role of Richard Tyler, a Korean War pilot, on the critically acclaimed drama “The 4400” for three seasons. On the stage, Ali appeared in productions of Blues for an Alabama Sky, The School for Scandal, A Lie of the Mind, A Doll’s House, Monkey in the Middle, The Merchant of Venice, The New Place and Secret Injury, Secret Revenge. His additional stage credits include appearing in Washington, D.C. at the Arena Stage in the title role of The Great White Hope, and in The Long Walk and Jack and Jill. He also just completed his starring run in the off-Broadway play Smart People, for which he received rave reviews. Originally from Hayward, California, Ali received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications at St. Mary’s College. He made his professional debut performing with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda, California. Soon after, he earned his Master’s degree in acting from New York University’s prestigious graduate program.
JANELLE MONÁE (Teresa) is a GRAMMY-nominated singer-songwriter, performer, producer and CoverGirl spokesperson known for her unique style and groundbreaking sound. Immersed in the performing arts at a young age, she founded her record label the Wondaland Arts Society releasing the EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). In 2010, Monáe released the highly anticipated and critically acclaimed ArchAndroid, which reached No. 17 on the Billboard Charts and earned her two GRAMMY nominations, including one for the hit single “Tightrope.” Monáe performed at that year’s awards alongside Bruno Mars and B.O.B. 2013 saw the release of the critically acclaimed album
The Electric Lady, featuring Prince and Miguel, which reached No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart. The album’s first single “Q.U.E.E.N.” garnered rave reviews and the accompanying video received over 4 million YouTube views in its first week and a coveted MTV VMA Moonman. In February of 2015, Janelle launched her very own label, Wondaland Records. Most recently, Monáe was featured in the Super Bowl 50 Pepsi commercial titled “The Joy of Dance,” wherein she pays homage to some of the greatest musical acts of past and present. In 2017, Janelle takes her talent to the silver screen, starring as a lead actor in the upcoming drama HIDDEN FIGURES, the true story of three African-American women who work for NASA and help make John Glenn the first person to orbit the Earth in 1962. The film also stars Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Kevin Costner.
ASHTON SANDERS (Teenage Chiron) is twenty years old and is a native of Los Angeles. He graduated from The Los Angeles of Performing Arts. He is currently a theatre major at DePaul University in Chicago. Ashton starred in many productions at the Los Angeles theater Center. He is best known for his supporting role in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON in 2015 and his leading role in RETRIEVAL in 2013. He most recently starred in the short film “We Home” filmed in Los Angeles, CA. His longtime agents and management team include The Savage Agency and The ESI Network.
JHARREL JEROME (Teenage Kevin) is a Bronx native and recent graduate of the famed LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, where he began his career playing leading roles in productions such as The Laramie Project and In the Heights. In addition to acting, Jharrel writes his own poetry and is a talented rapper, having been free-styling from the age of 11. Jharrel recently wrapped production on Olivia Newman’s directorial debut FIRST MATCH starring opposite Colman Domingo and Yahya AbdulMateen II. He is currently pursuing a BFA in acting at Ithaca College.
ABOUT THE CREW
BARRY JENKINS (Writer/Director) was born and raised in Miami, FL. After graduating from Florida State University with a BA in English and a BFA in Film, he relocated to Los Angeles where he worked as an assistant to director Darnell Martin on Harpo Films’ THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. His feature film debut, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, was released in theaters by IFC Films and hailed as one of the best films of 2009 by A.O. Scott of The New York Times. In 2010, Jenkins co-founded the commercial collective Strike Anywhere Films. A nominee for several Spirit and Gotham Awards, Jenkins’ recent work includes a screen adaptation for Overbrook Films and staff writing on HBO’s “The Leftovers.” In addition to being a curator and presenter at the Telluride Film Festival, he is a United States Artists Smith Fellow and was recently named one of the “20 Directors to Watch” in world cinema by The New York Times. MOONLIGHT is his second feature film.
TARELL ALVIN McCRANEY (Writer) is best known for his acclaimed trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays, which include The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet. Other plays include Head of Passes, Choir Boy, and Wig Out!
Tarell is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, the Whiting Award, Steinberg Playwright Award, the Evening Standard Award, the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, the Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, the Windham Campbell Award, and a Doris Duke Artist Award. He was the International Writer-in-Residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2008-2010, and a former resident playwright at New Dramatists. He is an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and a member of Teo Castellanos/D-Projects in Miami.
Tarell is a graduate of the New World School of the Arts, the Theatre School at DePaul University, and the Yale School of Drama, and he received an honorary doctorate from
the University of Warwick. He recently joined the University of Miami as Professor of Theatre and Civic Engagement as part of a three-year program, in partnership with UM, Miami-Dade County and the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center.