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Moonlight (2016 film)

Moonlight (2016 film).png
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Produced by
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins
Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue
by Tarell Alvin McCraney[1]
Music by Nicholas Britell
Cinematography James Laxton
Edited by
Distributed by A24
Release date
  • September 2, 2016 (2016-09-02) (Telluride)
  • October 21, 2016 (2016-10-21) (United States)
Running time
111 minutes[2]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $5 million[3]
Box office $23.3 million[4]

Moonlight is a 2016 American drama film directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and written by both. The film stars Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali.

Filmed in Miami, Florida, beginning in 2015, Moonlight premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2016. Distributed by A24, the film was released in the United States on October 21, 2016, and has grossed $23 million worldwide.

Moonlight received acclaim upon its release and was regarded as one of the best films of 2016, with critics praising the acting, direction, screenplay, cinematography, subject matter, and score. At the 74th Golden Globe Awards, the film won Best Motion Picture – Drama, and was nominated in five other categories. The film received eight Oscar nominations for the 89th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.


i. Little

Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a shy and withdrawn child dubbed "Little" for his meek personality and size, is found hiding from a pack of bullies by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer, who takes Chiron to his house where he lives with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). After being fed dinner and allowed to spend the night, Chiron begins to open up. The next morning, Juan delivers Chiron back to his emotionally abusive mother, Paula (Naomie Harris).

The only other person Chiron finds companionship with is Kevin (Jaden Piner), who he grows attached to. Chiron and Juan continue spending more time together, the latter teaching Chiron how to swim while advising him to make his own path in life. One night, Juan notices one of his customers smoking crack in a nearby car with Paula. Juan berates Paula for smoking crack while Paula rebukes him for selling it to her. Nonetheless ashamed, she takes out her frustrations on Chiron. The next morning, Chiron admits his hatred for his mother to Teresa and Juan. After confronting Juan about selling drugs to his own mother, Chiron leaves as Juan hangs his head in shame.

ii. Chiron

Now a teenager, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is frequently bullied by one of his peers, Terrel (Patrick Decile), though continuing to remain close to Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome). Paula has since become addicted to crack, solicits herself, and coerces Chiron to give her money given to him by Teresa, with whom he continues to spend nights over, despite Juan now being deceased.

One night, Chiron has a dream in which Kevin has sex with a woman in the backyard. On another night, Kevin visits Chiron at the beach near his house. While smoking a blunt, they discuss their ambitions in life and the nickname Kevin has given Chiron, "Black." After a charged moment, the two boys kiss and Kevin gives Chiron a handjob.

The next morning, Terrel pressures Kevin into partaking in a hazing ritual, ordering him to punch Chiron, to which he reluctantly complies. Chiron refuses to stay down, forcing Kevin to hit him multiple times. Once Chiron is unable to get up, Terrel and others nearby stomp on him until they are chased away by a security guard. A social worker urges Chiron to reveal the identities of his attackers, but Chiron believes reporting them will not solve anything. The next day, he walks into class and smashes a chair into Terrel's back. Chiron is subsequently arrested. As he is put into a police car, he glares at Kevin, who is standing by.

iii. Black

Now a hardened and physically imposing adult, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is a drug dealer living outside Atlanta, going by the name "Black". Having moved up since running drugs after leaving juvie, he now leads a similar life to the one Juan led. Chiron receives frequent calls from Paula, asking him to visit. One night, he gets a call from Kevin (now played by André Holland), who asks Chiron to visit him in Miami, where he works at a diner, also apologizing for his actions as a teenager. The next morning, Chiron wakes up to find that he has had a wet dream. The following day, he goes to visit his mother, who now resides at a drug treatment facility and has become repentant for her previous behavior. After a tense exchange, Chiron tearfully forgives her.

Chiron travels to Miami to reunite with Kevin, but when they finally meet, Chiron is reluctant to speak or drink with Kevin, who himself is surprised by Chiron's new appearance and simple motivation for seeing him. After a romantic re-encounter while playing the song Hello Stranger in the restaurant's jukebox, both head to Kevin's home. Kevin confides that although it may not have turned out the way that he had hoped, he is still happy with his life now. Chiron admits to Kevin that he never had intimate relations with another person, let alone another man, after Kevin. They physically reconcile shortly after, with Kevin shown holding Chiron in a tender embrace. In a flashback, a young Chiron plays in the ocean in the moonlight.




In 2003, Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote the semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue to cope with his mother’s death from AIDS. The theater piece was shelved for about a decade before it served as the basis for Moonlight.[5]

After the release of his debut feature film Medicine for Melancholy in 2008, Barry Jenkins wrote various screenplays, none of which entered production. In January 2013, producer Adele Romanski urged Jenkins to make a second film.[6] The two brainstormed a few times a month through video-chat, with the goal of producing a low-budget "cinematic and personal" film.[7] Jenkins was introduced to McCraney’s piece, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, through the Borscht arts collective in Miami.[8] After discussions with McCraney,[8] Jenkins wrote the first draft of the film in a month-long visit to Brussels,[7][9] choosing to split the original piece into three chapters while keeping the homosexuality aspects to honor McCraney’s side of the story.[8]

The result was a screenplay that reflected the similar upbringings of Jenkins and McCraney. The character Juan was based on the father of McCraney’s brother, who was also a childhood "defender" of McCraney, as Juan was for Chiron.[10] Likewise, Paula was a depiction of Jenkins and McCraney's mothers, who both struggled with drug addictions. McCraney and Jenkins both grew up in Liberty Square, a primary location of the film.[6]

Jenkins looked for financing for the film during 2013, finding success after sharing the script with the executives of Plan B Entertainment at the year's Telluride Film Festival. Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B Entertainment became producers of the film,[7] and A24 undertook to finance it and handle worldwide distribution, which marked the company's first production.[11]


Different actors portrayed Chiron and Kevin in each chapter of the film. Ashton Sanders was cast in the role of teen Chiron.[12] Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner were cast for the roles of child Chiron and child Kevin, respectively, in an open casting call in Miami.[13][14] Trevante Rhodes originally auditioned for the role of Kevin, before he was cast as adult Chiron.[15]

André Holland had previously acted in McCraney's plays, and had read the piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue a decade before the release of the film.[16] Holland was attracted to the role of adult Kevin when later reading the script of the film, stating “[The script] was the best thing I've ever read".[17]

Naomie Harris was initially reluctant to portray Paula, stating that she did not want to play a stereotypical depiction of a black woman.[18] When addressing her concerns, Jenkins emphasized the character’s representation of both his and McCraney’s mothers.[16] Harris later commented that although she had previously vowed not to portray a crack addict, the film’s script and director’s tolerance appealed to her.[6] In preparation for her role, Harris watched interviews of those with addiction to crack cocaine, and met with addicted women. She related her experiences of bullying to the addicts' attempts of escaping trauma.[18][19]

Adele Romanski proposed for Juan to be played by Mahershala Ali, who had a role in one of her previously produced films, Kicks. Jenkins was hesitant when casting Ali, due to his role as Remy Danton in House of Cards; however, he was convinced after witnessing Ali’s acting range and understanding of his character.[20] Ali considered the role an important opportunity to portray an African-American male mentor,[21] and drew on his experiences of “[growing] up with a Juan”.[20] Janelle Monáe was sent the script and immediately connected to her role as Teresa, commenting that she too had family members with similar struggles relating to drugs and sexual identity.[7]

Filming and post-production

Part of the film was shot in the Liberty Square housing project.

Filming began on October 14, 2015, in Miami, Florida.[13][22] After scouting for locations in Miami with Romanski,[9] Jenkins made an effort to film in locations where he previously lived. Liberty Square, a housing project located in the neighborhood of Liberty City, was chosen as one of the primary locations as both McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the area.[3][23] The film was shot undisturbed since Jenkins had relatives living in the area,[9] though the cast and crew had police escorts.[19] Naomie Harris later reflected:

It was the first time someone had come to their community and wanted to represent it onscreen, and since Barry Jenkins had grown up in that area, there was this sense of pride and this desire to support him. You felt this love from the community that I've never felt in any other location, anywhere in the world, and it was so strange that it happened in a place where people were expecting the complete opposite.[19]

During filming, Jenkins made sure that the three actors for Chiron did not meet each other until after filming to avoid any imitations of one another.[24] Consequently, Rhodes, Sanders, and Hibbert filmed in separate two-week periods.[23] Mahershala Ali frequently flew to Miami on consecutive weekends to film during the production of other projects.[25][26][27] Naomie Harris shot all of her scenes in three days without rehearsals,[18][19][27] while André Holland filmed the totality of his scenes in five.[27] The film was shot in a period of twenty five days.[5]

Jenkins worked with cinematographer and longtime friend James Laxton, who previously shot Medicine for Melancholy.[28] The two chose to avoid the "documentary look" and thus shot the film using widescreen CinemaScope on an Arri Alexa digital camera, which better rendered skin tone.[25][28] With colorist Alex Bickel, they further achieved this by creating a color grade that increased the contrast and saturation while preserving the detail and color. As a result, the three chapters of the film were designed to imitate different film stocks. The first chapter emulated the Fuji film stock to intensify the cast's skin tones. The second chapter imitated the Agfa film stock, which added cyan to the images, while the third chapter used a modified Kodak film stock.[29]

The film was edited in Los Angeles[25] by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, former university schoolmates of Jenkins.[28] Sanders was responsible for editing the first and second chapters, while McMillon was responsible for the third.[30]


The score of Moonlight was composed by Nicholas Britell. Britell applied the chopped and screwed technique from hip hop remixes to orchestral music, producing a "fluid, bass-heavy score".[3] The soundtrack, released on October 21, 2016, consists of eighteen original songs by Britell along with others by Goodie Mob, Boris Gardiner, and Barbara Lewis.[31]


The film had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2016.[34] It also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2016,[35][36] the New York Film Festival on October 2, 2016,[37][38] and the BFI London Film Festival on October 6, 2016.[39] The film was released to select theaters on October 21, 2016,[40] before beginning a wide release on November 4, 2016.[41][42] The full UK cinema release will be on February 17, 2017.[43]

Critical reception

Moonlight received near unanimous praise from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 98% based on 264 reviews, with an average rating of 9/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Moonlight uses one man's story to offer a remarkable and brilliantly crafted look at lives too rarely seen in cinema."[44] On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 99 out of 100, based on 51 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[45]

David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter positively reviewed Moonlight after its premiere at the 2016 Telluride Film Festival. He praised the performances of the cast and the cinematography of James Laxton as "fluid and seductive, deceptively mellow, and shot with searing compassion." Rooney concluded by writing that Moonlight "will strike plangent chords for anyone who has ever struggled with identity, or to find connections in a lonely world."[46] In a uniformly positive review for Time Out New York, Joshua Rothkopf gave Moonlight a full five stars out of five, praising Barry Jenkins' direction and hailing the film as "without a doubt, the reason we go to the movies: to understand, to come closer, to ache, hopefully with another."[47]

Brian Formo of gave Moonlight an 'A-' grade rating, applauding the performances and direction but contending that the film "is more personal and important than it is great."[48] Similarly, Jake Cole of Slant Magazine praised the acting, but criticized the screenplay, and argued that "so much of the film feels old-hat."[49] In a review for The Verge, Tasha Robinson lamented the plot details omitted between the film's three acts, but wrote that "what does make it to the screen is unforgettable."[50]

While discussing the film after its screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times described Moonlight as "achingly romantic and uncommonly wise", opining the film to be an early Oscar contender. Chang further wrote: "[Barry Jenkins] made a film that urges the viewer to look past Chiron’s outward appearance and his superficial signifiers of identity, climbing inside familiar stereotypes in order to quietly dismantle them from within... [Moonlight] doesn't say much. It says everything."[51]


At the 74th Golden Globe Awards, Moonlight received six nominations, the second highest of all film nominees after La La Land (seven).[52] The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, with additional nominations for five more: Best Director (for Jenkins), Best Supporting Actor (for Ali), Best Supporting Actress (for Harris), Best Screenplay (for Jenkins) and Best Original Score (for Britell).[53]

Moonlight received four nominations at the 70th British Academy Film Awards: Best Film, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Original Screenplay.[54]

Moonlight was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Jenkins), Best Supporting Actor (for Ali), Best Supporting Actress (for Harris) and Best Adapted Screenplay.[55] Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon were nominated for Best Film Editing, making McMillon the first black woman to earn an Academy Award nomination in film editing.[56]

Because the film's screenplay was based on a play that had not previously been produced or published, different awards have had different rules about whether it qualified in the original or adapted screenplay categories.[57] It was classified as an original screenplay by both the Writers Guild of America Awards and the BAFTAs, but was ruled as an adapted screenplay according to Academy Award rules.[57]


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  57. ^ a b "Oscars: Moonlight ineligible for Best Original Screenplay". Entertainment Weekly, December 15, 2016.

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