“Brokeback Mountain” and “Moonlight,” the stunning movie nominated for eight Oscars that was directed by Barry Jenkins and written by Jenkins and Tarell McCraney, could not be more different. And yet, when the credits rolled on the latter, my emotions reminded me of the way I felt after seeing the former 12 years ago. What I’d just watched in each film was a powerful love story beautifully rendered with understated grace.
“Brokeback Mountain,” which won three Oscars in 2006, is the tale of two white men who discover their feelings for each one summer while herding sheep in Wyoming and the complex lives they lead over the years. “Moonlight,” based on McCraney’s quasi-autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” is the story of the harrowing life of an African American boy who becomes a man during the crack epidemic in Miami and the love of a childhood friend (Kevin) he never forgot. It is told from the perspective of Little, Chiron and Black, the three names of the protagonist as we watch him grow up and his life unfold in three parts.
To my relief, McCraney didn’t dismiss my armchair cinematic observation.
“They’re love stories, particularly involving two heteronormative or cisgendered men, for sure,” he told me by phone after having landed back in Los Angeles from London. And then he added more context to my theory by pointing to the prominence of the outdoors in “Brokeback Mountain.” McCraney said the film resonated “because that movie was so rooted in that place that you can feel the specificity and the experience.”
“One of the things that was important to Barry and myself … especially to Barry, is that he captured what it was like to grow up in Liberty City, specifically,” McCraney continued. And he said it was very important to show “the experience of growing up with parents who were drug addicts; we both had mothers who were ravaged by a crack addiction.” They wanted to do so “not to make it exploitive,” McCraney told me, “but to locate us in a place that was authentic and true.”
There were two specific scenes that rang so authentic and true that I had to ask McCraney about them. The moment at the dining table when Little asks a delicate question and the closing minutes of the film when Black and Kevin reunite after years apart.
Mahershala Ali (you’ll recognize him as Remy Danton from “House of Cards”) plays Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Little after finding him hiding in an abandoned building, where he sought refuge from bullies. After being berated by his mother, Little goes to the house of Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, played by singer Janelle Monae, and asks the man who has shown him so much kindness, “What’s a faggot?”
Everything about that scene had me on the edge of my seat with roiling emotions. Not only did I feel as though I was that little black kid sitting in that chair asking the question, but having lived a life the child had yet to experience I also ached in anticipation of the answer I desperately hoped Little would hear.
Juan: Faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.
Little: Am I faggot?
Juan: No. No. You can be gay, but you’re not going to let anybody call you no faggot.
Little: How do I know?
Juan: You just do, I think.
Teresa: You’ll know when you know.
Juan: Hey, you don’t gotta know right now. Not yet.
After watching the anti-gay abuse Little suffers at home and at school, that wasn’t the response I expected. To hear such comforting words and support was overwhelming to this gay man, I’ll admit. It is exactly what every lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kid hopes to hear from a loved one — and more often than not, doesn’t. And it is a moment right out of McCraney’s life.
“It’s based on an actual person who was in my life who allowed me to have that kind of space for a little while,” McCraney said. “Barry wanted to make sure the experience matched the feeling of that memory.”
“I was being picked on very early and I was getting into fights, and somebody had to explain to me why people thought it was okay to pick on me in that way. And, so yeah, it was a very real conversation about me being different, and that different is sometimes okay, and that sometimes you’re gonna have to defend yourself, but it’s not because something’s wrong with you. And you don’t have to know, you don’t have to know all the answers to life right now. Nobody knows.”
A pivotal moment in “Moonlight” comes when Chiron and Kevin share a first kiss and a little more intimacy on the beach. The unbridled joy on Chiron’s face, a face that never smiles, is as marvelous as it is fleeting. For what follows is a betrayal that leads to a series of events that would separate the two for years. It is their reunion that is the second standout sequence.
Tall and skinny Chiron has given way to bulked-up Black. But it’s a “muscular, hyper-masculine facade,” McCraney pointed out. “The moment he got on the phone with Kevin, or the moment he heard Kevin’s voice for the first time in a long time,” McCraney said, “he instantly swerved back to that 7-year-old kid, that high school kid, or that kid on the beach.” And we watch Black wrestle with his emotions for the rest of the film.
“We see this man who should be able to navigate the entire last third of the piece with a kind of agility, he’s built up hard, he knows the world. Instead, we see somebody who is literally flailing, trying to figure out what to do now that something is awakened in him that he hadn’t prepared for,” McCraney told me. “So, yes, he definitely has been waiting or sort of had put on pause something very deep, that happened between him and Kevin, but at the same time, it cost him something. It cost him something to build himself up hard, and to be that protective of himself. He built that wall to keep things out but nothing could get in.”
A big question I had for McCraney was: What happens to Black and Kevin once the movie ends? His answer surprised me.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I’m just, honestly, just never thought past that moment.” That moment is the two men back in each other’s arms. They have been through so much and given where their lives are, I couldn’t help but think that their future was not nearly as bright as their present.
“The fact that they’re alive, and they cross that bridge to be able to be in that conversation, for me, is amazing, ’cause like you said about ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ They don’t even get to that place, right?” You’ll recall, societal pressures and Jack’s murder keep him and Ennis from having what Black and Kevin have at the end of “Moonlight.”
“A lot of movies are like that; they end without life for these characters, or the characters in that way,” McCraney told me. “But this one does. This one ends with a life that’s fully, that has steam ahead. That’s kind of amazing and important to me.”
Sunday night, I’ll be in front of the television to see whether “Moonlight” follows in the footsteps of “Brokeback Mountain.” Both were nominated in the same seven of eight Oscar categories. Yeah, yeah, it’s an honor to be nominated, and I hope all the nominees win. But I’m rooting for McCraney and Jenkins to take home the statue for best writing adapted screenplay and for Jenkins to win best director. A story so beautifully told and depicted deserves such an honor.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj
Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast