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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter


by writer/director Barry Jenkins

Moonlight arrives eight years after my first feature, Medicine For Melancholy. Eight years is a long time, longer than I ever imagined would pass between my first and next film. It is what it is, I’m fond of saying. And yet, two weeks from the film’s release, I struggle to answer the question I find myself fielding more often than others: what took so damn long?

The film, a coming of age story set against the backdrop of my hometown, Miami, Florida, is something of a fictionalized biography shared between myself and Tarell McCraney, the playwright upon whose work (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) the film is based. The character Chiron, struggling to find himself in a world seemingly charged with dictating to him who he is, reminds me of myself and the time I spent doing everything but what I truly wanted to do — making this film!  

I fell into filmmaking by happenstance. As an undergrad at Florida State University, I was an English Education major who’d become a Creative Writing Major who was entering a football game at Doak Campbell stadium when I saw a sign that said Film School. Prior to this, I’d had no inclination to study film and yet, there it was, the remainder of my life thrust upon me as a compromise by the board of regents (to justify the massive cost of renovating the football stadium, the university had to include an arts program in the build, hence the film school in a football stadium oddity).

I knew nothing about filmmaking; I literally did not know you needed light to expose film. At a time when films were still made on film, this was a hindrance. My peers in film school at this time were stellar (It Follows director David Robert Mitchell and Maze Runner director Wes Ball among them). For the first time in my life, I was faced with a question: am I floundering at this because I lack experience or because I’m black and poor and from a broken home? Engaging and dismantling that question with a dedicated passion for the art of filmmaking has been the most rewarding journey of my life.

But enough about me.

Moonlight is an immersive film. Or so I hope. Unlike most coming of age films, our story takes the form of a triptych — three episodes that explore the most pivotal moments in our protagonist’s quarter life. Rather than churn through decades of life as story, we observe Chiron in real-time — coming apart, coming together over the course of days and hours rather than years — a character being shaped before our eyes. In film, particularly when the work is personal, craft is a vessel for the voice. In Moonlight, Chiron’s voice is carried in the light and sounds of Miami, an audio-visual approach we sought to root in character rather than theme or story. When I think of this film and what it’s meant to me, I think most of that first semester of film school and how my voice was stifled by a lack of craft; I think proudly of the work these fifteen years since and the realization of my filmmaking voice as presented in Moonlight.

As I write this, I’m listening to Solange Knowles’ new album, A Seat At The Table, music that reminds me what a profound moment this is to be a black artist in America. Moonlight was influenced, willed, nourished, supported by the following: James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Clair Denis, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Wong Kar Wai, Khalil Joseph, Charles Burnett, Hou Shiao Shien, Darius Clarke Monroe, Julie Dash, Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler, Justin Simien, Ava DuVernay, Bradford Young, Alex Jackson, Tahir Jetter, Terrance Nance, Dee Rees, Chop Stars, Michael Thomas… and far too many others to fully name here.

On Cranes In The Sky, Solange sings:

I tried to work it away
But that just made me even sadder
I tried to keep myself busy
I ran around in circles
Think I made myself dizzy
I slept it away, I sexed it away
I read it away
Away, Away, Away, Away, Away

I’m so thankful for the privilege of composing this letter. It’s further proof that I’m no longer away.

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