Telluride Film Fest: AO Scott Interviews Barry Jenkins On "Moonlight"

At the screening of  Barry Jenkins’ sophomore project and masterpiece, “Moonlight – a love fest – the rapt audience learned the writer-director had come up through the ranks at the Telluride Film Festival, doing everything to remain involved after his days attending the Student Symposium ended: popping popcorn, cleaning bathrooms, spilling beers. In my review of the weekend, I said this about “Moonlight”: “However raw and difficult things get, we can’t look away because Jenkins made the smart choice to bathe his story in the cold, harsh light of day. Sunlight dominates ‘Moonlight’: we can run, but we cannot hide from the truth-telling on the screen – not even in a dark, cushy theatre tucked away in a box canyon. New York Times critic and Telluride fan AO Scott interviewed Jenkins about his must-see movie, which is poetic, nuanced, and necessary.

Desire, identity and friendship: Trevante Rhodes in “Moonlight.” Courtesy, New York Times.

Desire, identity and friendship: Trevante Rhodes in “Moonlight.” Courtesy, New York Times.

In recent years, Barry Jenkins has been a familiar presence at the Telluride Film Festival. He has programmed short films, moderated panels with filmmakers and actors and served as a “ringmaster,” standing up before screenings to thank sponsors and ask that cellphones be silenced. This year he took on a different role. His second feature, “Moonlight,” had its premiere here, and to say that it received a warm welcome would be a drastic understatement. There were tears and standing ovations, a reception that is likely to continue as the film makes its way into theaters. (It opens in October.)

Told in three chapters, divided among three lead actors, “Moonlight” is about Chiron, a young man growing up, as Mr. Jenkins did, in a poor section of Miami. Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is poetic and poignant, at once a reality check about the state of black America and an intensely personal, almost dreamy, meditation on desire, identity and friendship. I spoke with Mr. Jenkins on Sunday at a cafe here a day before the festival ended. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Tell me about your history at Telluride.

I came here in 2002 in the Student Symposium program, which I think — until now — is the best way to come to the festival. Fifty students come out; you see films; you go back to the classroom and talk to the filmmakers. After that, I came back as a staffer. I went from making popcorn and being an usher to making films myself and then being elevated to speaking with other filmmakers about the process.

In his introduction to “Moonlight” on Saturday, the theater artist Peter Sellars said: “African-Americans can’t just make movies. They have to make everything.” Did you feel pressure to make something representative, to tell the big story?

I think there was an element of that. The movie is about very specific characters, in a very specific neighborhood, going through very specific ordeals. In that specificity there’s something universal, but also there’s a statement on the black experience. That statement is filtered purely through my experience and Tarell’s experience. We just both happened to have been born in this neighborhood, and both our moms just happened to become addicted to crack cocaine, and we both just happened to go on and become artists. What Peter said is in some ways true: There’s no way to approach serious storytelling like this without addressing, or being spiritually linked to, this massive topic of what the black experience is…

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