A Conversation With Moonlight Playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Last week I had the opportunity to talk with Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue was adapted for the movie MOONLIGHT. If you haven't seen the film yet, it's 100% worth seeing so go do that now (or soon).
A few notes before you dive into our conversation:
- The story of Moonlight is based on Tarell's real life experiences growing up gay, black, and poor in Liberty City, Florida.
- Tarell wrote the original script for the stage (he's an incredibly talented playwright), but he never intended it to be performed on the stage.
- Director Barry Jenkins and Tarell actually grew up in the same city and went to the same schools, though the didn't know each other back then. After Barry came across Tarrel's script for In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue the two met and Barry adapted the script for film.
I was absolutely blown away by Tarell's humility, depth, and curiosity about the world and his own story. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
SAMANTHA CURLEY (SC): I want to start by talking about Moonlight as story about Chiron’s quest for identity. I’m wondering what advantages you see in this journey for the gay community. In other words, what can those with a marginalized identity, teach those with a more privileged identity?
TARELL ALVIN McCRANEY (TM): Well, I don’t want to diminish anything, but I think the scary thing that we often miss is that all identity, especially in the way we’ve constructed it in this country, is marginal. Meaning any identity that we think of as specific to ourselves is problematic, right, because we are being asked to sort of fall into these slots. We’re asked to fall into these very mundane and authoritative and oppressive holders for each of us.
Women are asked to look a certain way and then if you add race and identity and sexual preference and social location all of a sudden there is this sort of litany of ways in which you are supposed to perform. I hope that what the movie does is throw an iris onto how those performances can suppress and sometimes diminish the brightness of the individual. I didn’t create this story for or any gallant or any valor or because I was trying to champion anything. I was just sort of struggling to figure out how that happens and why.
And I still don’t have real answers. But the way Mahershala says that when we persecute people for trying to be themselves, they fold in on themselves and we miss out. I think that to me is one of the most important statements that we can make. Is that when we watch people be hemmed in for who they are trying to be because they don’t conform or fit into what we think they should be. We miss. We lose.
SC: I think that is particularly true for those who haven’t been asked to think about their identity because they fit more easily into those boxes. And the film and the story do a really great job of confronting that for all of us.
So one of my favorite scenes is early in the film where Juan tells Chiron: “You don’t have to know yet.” referring to his sexuality. And then the films ends with Chiron almost confessing to Kevin that he has been his only sexual experience. What would Chiron have needed to more safely explore his sexuality between the ages of 8 and 28? What was missing in his environment?
TM: Yeah, well, you know, first of all, let’s be clear, I don’t know. That’s why I constructed the story in that way and sort of kept to that construction because those are the circumstances that happened. And when we do that, what we end up with is more questions than answers. We have no idea with space, access, opportunity, tenderness, caring, what Chiron would have done or how he would have acclimated. All we do know is that he was given these very few choices and he picked the ones that he thought best and they led him here. I think what is really telling about that is how even then a lot of people on all sides of spectrum and identity want to place him somewhere.
Everybody wants to know, well what is he? But all we know is that at one time in his life, here is how he reacted or here is what actually happened. That’s all we know. That’s all Chiron knows and he’s using that to make the best decisions he can and why can’t that be enough? From that place, why isn’t he enough?
Why does he have to now figure out some sort of redress to make publicly about where he stands in the world? And again, it’s telling of how we, and by we I mean everybody, we all keep trying to find a bucket to put people in. I think it’s important that we recognize that impulse in us, that the human thing is to categorize. We always want to know, friend or foe, near or far, what color is this?
However, it also is human to check that impulse, to sort of go, “Wait, wait, this is a human being. I cannot place this person in a box and expect them to perform in a way that I expect.” Expectations are a human thing, but there is something other in us, too. There is something unexpected, and if we put expectations and people don’t meet them, then we have to check our expectations, we have to leave them at the door.
So in that way, that is how I always look at the character. I look at him in a way that I try to keep an open mind and when people come and say, “Well I feel like this.” and I’m like “Okay, cool that is one way of figuring it out.” I think, ultimately, the hope is that in a free society, that person can have the space to be whoever they are without infringing upon anybody else’s freedom. If that makes any sense.
SC: Yeah, yea, absolutely. It’s almost more telling about the person who’s watching of how they critique or identify him, then it is even about Chiron himself.
TM: For sure, for sure. Even in my own critique, I oftentimes am like, “Wait, why am I sort of laying these things on him?” Who knows? It’s interesting also, that people talk less about Kevin. They sort of shy away from Kevin for some reason. And I think it’s because Kevin is so steadfast in who he is. I think people sort of just wander away even though who he is doesn’t fit any sort of binary that we know of. Still because he seems so assured, we have less input.
But the moment someone is deemed unsure, they seem to be wavering, we get prescriptive. It’s just interesting. I think we do that often.
SC: Changing gears a little bit. I run an organization called Level Ground where we talk about faith, gender and sexuality through the arts and try to foster empathy. Could you talk a little bit about your own spiritual upbringing?
TM: Sure. My grandfather on my father’s side was a Baptist minister. My grandmother on my father’s side also was raised by a minister so she was a daughter of a pastor. I spent a lot of time in church. I spent a lot of time reading scripture and studying it as a young person. I was in church and I was baptized fairly early. And then as I got older, I remained faithful and identify as close as I can to a Christian identity without being thrown out of the church.
I keep trying to be as close to those rules as possible, especially in the times of how to treat other people. I think, to me the grace of God, the universe, whatever you believe in, is all around us at all times. If you can’t share that than what’s the point of being a human being? We might as well be animals. The gift is that we are given grace and can recognize that grace and can share it with each other and can provide space for people to live in the paradise that we were given. I try to live as close to that as possible. I don’t know if I necessarily succeed, but I try.
SC: Well, I’m sure you do as much as any of us can succeed in that. In your experience then of growing up around professional religious people or the church, how do you think religious communities contribute to the shame of sexuality? And how do you think they could help encourage a kind of authenticity in claiming who we are?
TM: You get a good gift and you want to share it but then you sort of start putting these rules on sharing it, and who can share it, and how they can share it and it’s only to protect yourself. It’s only because you are afraid that the gift is going to go away and I think in religious doctrine that’s what happens. We see a gift, we see a goodness and we sort of go, “Oh, well, I got to protect it because if everybody gets it then it won’t be special to me anymore.” And that’s just sort of true.
It’s the way in which art works as well. We think that anything that gives sustenance and goodness is sort of going to run away. We also know that to be true with food, right? We know we make enough food in the world to feed every single person in the world right now. No one has to be hungry, right? Except that in our minds somewhere, we think, “Oh, if I give away this thing, I won’t have enough for me.” So we put rules and restrictions on it, only to make that true. We then make it true, that if I give this away I won’t have enough for me. We make society, we make rules in society that work that way. But, mathematically or universally, we know it’s not true. I think if we come from a place of knowing that there is always more grace and generosity or goodness to give, it helps steer us away from hurting people when they fall short in any way, shape, or form.
I remember my grandfather actually said to me what Juan said to Chiron, which is that:
“You know you don’t have to know everything right now. I don’t know everything (and he was seventy). I don’t know everything. I don’t understand everything. Everything isn’t revealed to me. But don’t let anybody else come between you and your search, your spiritual quest. Because they can’t figure it out for you. They can try, they can tell you.”
And this is coming from someone who clearly had had leadership and spirituality for a long time, but was telling me at a very young age that you can’t trust anyone else to be your spiritual guide. They can give you tools but the best thing you can do is trust your yourself, trust your instincts. I think a lot of what we do is try to put that in the hands of other people. We keep telling them if you go to Bishop so and so, they will help you find your way. And if you turn to this piece of scripture, it will help you find your way and it’s actually, the scripture is there to help you figure it out within yourself. It’s to help, hopefully, resonate something inside of you that will start ringing and then making itself true to you.
No matter how we identify in the world or how people see us, we all fall short, as you said earlier, we all do the best we can to succeed in that way and in the failure, if we are told that it’s just like getting back up, we make a difference, than I think that people see themselves and I think they see the world differently. They feel more a part of that community rather than ostracized from it.
SC: Thank you for sharing that. I’m wondering if there are any moments of spirituality or faith that are present for you in the film? As you kind of see it through your eyes.
TM: Oh yeah, yeah, all over it. When Mahershala is in the water with Alex. When Chiron is there. I mean if that isn’t a baptism, I don’t know what is. There is a moment where it looks like Andre Holland is praying for Trevante towards the very end of the film. And I think people take it in a different way but it literally looks like he’s being prayed for in that moment. You know what I mean? Or he’s being comforted in a way that looks like prayer and I think there’s many moments like that. I could go through but they’re there.
SC: Yeah, a spiritual essence is definitely sprinkled throughout. And it sounds like faith has been present throughout the ebbs and flows of your own life, so I’m sure that’s in the story in ways that maybe you didn’t even intend for it to be.
TM: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I think ways that nobody can intend.
SC: I’m wondering, just out of curiosity how that Baptism scene changed from how it was written for the stage and then how it was portrayed on the screen? Was there any difference there?
TM: Well, it was never written for the stage. Again, I don’t think it would have been possible to do exactly that scene on stage. But the scene was always going to be in the water, somehow. I don’t think I’m smart enough to figure out how that works on stage though. But, in the original script it happened more as a trial. It was a full immersion so it was like the kid was terrified and gets in the water.
And I think, one of the great things about the way Barry works, which is very similar to the way I like directors to work in plays, is that sure, you have the script and you have the actors and you have what you need to do and then at some point you sort of go, “Okay, cool. This is what we need to do, but this is how much time we have. This is what we actually can do. Let me see. Let’s figure out the best way to do this.”
And that scene becomes that when you have an actor who actually cannot swim and you’re in shallow water and you only have a certain amount of time to get in and out of it before all the things fall apart; before it starts pouring raining, before you lose the light and so at that moment it becomes improvisational. It’s like what do these people, in this space, trying to achieve this goal, what can they make happen. And so it’s different than it was “scripted” but at the same time it works out exactly how it was supposed to be shot.
SC: That is a good segue to the next question I have. Because I’ve read you talking about how you don’t think that it ever could have actually been performed on stage, by nature of how you wrote it. And Barry did an incredible job of transforming that script into a linear narrative for the screen. But could you talk a little about being an artist and the constraints and freedoms that art gives you to explore identity? And maybe what advice you would give to anyone working to express themselves through art?
TM: Well, I feel like what artists do best, we put frames around chaos. The world we live in, what we live in is sort of a constant ebb and flow of chaos; sometimes good chaos; sometimes bad chaos; sometimes we don’t know chaos. And then art gives you a second to put a frame around it. It gives you a second to put a front, and a back and literally we can put a frame around art and it contains for a moment some of the sort of fast pace or the chaos that life can be.
In that, we are always just looking for moments to glimpse ourselves. It’s like if you were running on the treadmill and you didn’t realize there was a mirror by you and now you can suddenly see yourself and you didn’t know that you were running that way or you didn’t know that you had a jaunt that looks that way. That’s what art does, it holds up that mirror for that split second where just thought you weren’t being seen or that you didn’t exactly investigate. I think the best advice I can give is to be kind and ruthless in your investigation. You want to absolutely investigate as deeply as you can go but as generously as well.
I think sometimes we find artists who are just sort of after an expose and that art can kind of feel gratuitous in a way. But one of the ways in which — and not to lead this back to Barry, but again, Barry is a great artist because he investigated with generosity. He didn’t sort of seek to exploit anybody, he wanted to present something as generously as he could. Deeply. A deep investigation. But at the same time a generous one. I always try to get young people or young artists or early artists to think in that way. To investigate as deeply as possible as specifically as possible but with the generosity of a person who is connected to that community, even if they are not. If that makes any sense?
SC: I also read that you loved the film Tangerine. Which I also thought was excellent. Sean Baker is an amazing filmmaker who tells these stories about marginalized experiences, despite coming at them from the outside. Moonlight similarly just creates this incredible depth of empathy. But told from your perspective of having come from inside the experience of Liberty City and that world. I’m wondering how you think artists and filmmakers can practice telling stories that create empathy for marginalized characters without having ever been those characters themselves?
TM: Well, first of all, I think one of the things that Europa Culture tells us, which is a West African cosmology mostly brought over to the new world through the archives of slavery but still in existence and with the Mighty Empire for awhile. One of the things about understanding the way in which they look at spirituality, and art-making, culture-making, is thinking about how we actually are all parts of the same. And though you may not have experienced the same things, you have my experience within you because it’s within the realm of humanity, those same reactions.
So you have to always go in with deference if you are going or writing about some place that you are not from or if you are creating work from a place you are not from. You lean not onto your own understanding but you also open the generosity that understands your instincts. You know there are moments when you meet up and you say, “Oh, I understand this because this is true to me, too.” And then when you don’t understand something, it’s not that you don’t sort of push it away, you sort of allow it to just be and be something that you don’t understand and I think that goes back to that level of generosity. A level of deference, well, “I don’t know this fully but I will keep myself enough and protect it enough, to make sure that we can see people as they truly are and not how I want them to be.”
SC: Okay so my last question. The film portrays the power of naming and being able to decide who you are and what people call you. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to have the protagonist named three different ways throughout the film? And his connection or attachment to those names.
TM: I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s about taking ownership, of one man being able to name oneself. The ability to say, “this is who I am in the world” is often denied most of us. We’re not allowed to say it, but that’s changing. For example, it’s important now that when you enter into a conversation or into an institution with people, that you say what pronouns are important to you and what you want to be called and not be called. And I think, those simple acts to just say, “this is what and how I want to be perceived.” Even back then when I wrote the original script at 22, it was important. And even in the original script, you went through the whole script and if Chiron was a teenager he was being called Chiron. If he was a kid, he was being called Little. If he was grown, he was being called Black. And then again, the ability for that person at that time to say, “This is who I am NOW.”
So, yeah, I think there’s something really important and that I have more questions than answers actually to that but it was important for me to learn from that perspective because I think a lot of us are longing to do that. A lot of us. And I don’t mean just people from where I’m from or where you’re from. I think people, in general, are struggling with being able to name themselves.
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