In 2008, director Barry Jenkins released Medicine for Melancholy, a lyrical under-seen gem tracing a 24-hour romance between an African-American couple amid a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. In the ensuing years, there were shorts and aborted projects — one involving Stevie Wonder, time-travel and Solange Knowles — before Jenkins came across the play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Jenkins instantly recognised elements of his own story in its pages: both director and playwright grew up in Liberty City, a deprived, mostly African-American neighbourhood in north Miami devastated by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. The pair had even attended the same school. Jenkins’ resulting adaptation, Moonlight, has already won a Golden Globe, and it’s in the running for eight Oscars. The storyline follows gay black man Chiron from his boyhood with a neglectful, drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and a drug-dealer mentor (Mahershala Ali), through a skinny, withdrawn adolescence into a haunted adulthood.
The issue of gay black masculinity in America is so rarely discussed, let alone explored onscreen with such unflinching honesty, that Moonlight feels like a watershed moment in the history of black cinema. It has provoked some extreme reactions — from angry claims that the film threatens black manhood to a 65-year-old straight white man crying in Jenkins’ arms. Given that the US has seen increasing violence by the police against young black men and attacks on people of colour and the LGBT community, Moonlight’s message of tolerance feels exceptionally pertinent. Beyond its deeply personal exploration and social resonance, the film is just plain beautiful to look at. Jenkins has pointed to influences including Claire Denis and Wong Kar Wai, but the LA-based 37-year-old has found a singular voice. He’s now working on an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s fantastical tale of escape from slavery, The Underground Railroad.