Moonlight: Roots–How the Powerful Film Was Conceived

Moonlight, one of the highlights of this movie year, will be released by A24 in October, after playing at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto Film Fests.


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.

A member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, McCraney wrote the “Brother-Sister” trilogy of plays, set in a Louisiana housing project, which placed him in the front rank of playwrights writing on the African American experience.

He submitted the short work — “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 almost 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 follow-up to MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY.


Friends since college, the duo began holding bi-weekly meetings where they volleyed ideas back and forth.  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.”

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 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.

Chapter One:

The first chapter 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.

Chapter Two:

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.

Chapter Three:

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.”

The tale 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.


MOONLIGHT transcends labels or definitions, telling a universal story through one young man’s 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.”

Brad Pitt Plan B

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 of 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.