Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins and based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, tells a three-chapter coming of age story about a young black gay man who struggles to come to terms with his identity while growing up in urban Miami during the “War on Drugs” era.
Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland, who play Chiron (“Black”) and Kevin, the main characters and lovers in the film, talk about their experiences preparing for these roles, why they think that the movie is important, how the movie has impacted audiences, and what they love about being black men.
Because the story is so intersectional in terms of socioeconomic background, rights, sexuality, how did you guys prepare for these roles?
Andre: It was really important to me that I make sure I understood what the place was, Miami, so I went there a couple weeks early, spent some time in the housing project that the story takes place in. Tarell’s plays deal with a lot of the same things: identity, community, family, masculinity, sexuality, and so being really familiar with his plays helped me a lot to prepare. Fortunately, neither of us had the opportunity to meet the younger versions of ourselves. That’s something I think we both wanted to do, but Barry was adamantly against it, so a lot of it just involved trust, just trusting that Barry was going to take care of us, which he did.
When you watch the film, do you connect to the younger self on the screen?
Trevante: One million percent. I think Alex is so similar to what I used to be and the way I used to look. Other than some change in the nose, when I watched the film for the first time, it was jarring because I was like, “What? This is like a reincarnation of myself.” And then I had that taller, gangly stage in my life when I was skinny and everything, so the whole thing was just a surreal moment, so absolutely.
Why do you feel that this film is important?
Andre: So many reasons. Right now, we’re living in the Black Lives Matter era. It’s very difficult for me to understand how we can say Black Lives Matter and push for equality and social justice but at the same time, within our own community, marginalize a whole other section of who we are. It feels unfair and unkind and not right. So, one of the reasons I think this movie is important is because it puts this story, the gay black experience, front and center. In the talk last night, one of the people in the audience said, you know, it’s not about AIDS. It’s not about people in enormous crises. It’s just about people being in love with each other and trying to work shit out. This person said also that somehow the white queer narrative has been able to move on from the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and become about something else, whereas the black queer narrative hasn’t been able to do that yet, so I hope that this movie helps to push that forward.
I watched your work in The Knick and also in Selma. This role is very different from those characters. How do you prepare for going into a role that is different from or similar to those roles?
Andre: I mean I have my own sort of actor process: asking myself a lot of questions and then trying to find answers for those questions, questions where you end up with, like, a stack of writing trying to figure these things out, and before you know it, you’ve created a life. Going into this one, the big thing to me that I kind of came to was shame and guilt. I feel like that’s really what was driving Kevin, you know, that moment in the middle chapter when he hurts “Black,” Chiron, when he hits him. I think he’s been living with the guilt of that for a long, long time. And when he shows up, I think that’s what he’s trying to get to the bottom of. It’s just like, “Is there a way for us to fix that or start again,” or “Are you okay?” or “Can you come out and join me in a more peaceful, authentic place?” So that was a big part of it. And then of course the other stuff: spending time in Miami, trying to understand what the accent is, trying to figure out how these people dress, listening to a lot of music. Tarell took me around the projects for a couple of days, and I was like, “Bruh.”
How different for you guys have white versus black people responded to the movie?
Trevante: It hasn’t been different to me. That’s what’s been amazing. It hasn’t been different at all, which is the most insane thing in the world to me, because again, it speaks to literally everyone no matter your age, sexual orientation, race, which is insane because it is a very, very, very specific story about a specific person, but in that becomes this universal thing that any and everyone can relate to. Anyone can see a bit of themselves in Chiron or see a bit of Chiron in themselves. It’s just been incredible.
Andre: I mean, that’s Barry’s genius, man. He stays away from trying to make broad strokes and generalizations about culture or stereotypical things. He just gets very, very, very specific about who these people are, in the way that Shakespeare makes Hamlet set in Denmark in a castle called Elsinore, and yet we all understand what Hamlet’s journey was but it’s about a Danish dude. But he makes it about a brother from urban Miami, and because of that, older white people are coming up to us every day saying, “Oh my god, I remember what it was like to be bullied when I was in school in Tulsa,” or “I lost the person I was in love with, we got disconnected,” or whatnot. Everybody has a point of access, which is the magic of this movie I think.
Can I ask you guys to finish this sentence? “What I love about being a black man is….”
Trevante: To be honest, I like being underestimated. I like the fact that I get to kind of show people certain sides of us as a people that people don’t really naturally believe that we have or can do or can be. I know that’s kind of belittling our race in a sense, but the society is brought up to think that we’re these dumb or lesser kind of people, and I like to be a part of a discussion that proves to combat that. I love the fact that I get to be around you guys who are all doing the same thing, helping to progress and to push us forward as a people.
Andre: I think the first thing that comes to mind is what’s in the blood of us as a people. What I mean is, you know, when I hear our music, when I hear the drums, when I hear the drums in this movie, that connects to something in me that’s also in my mama and my daddy, that’s also in my grandmom and my granddaddy and so on and so on and so on. When I find myself in tricky spots, I can remember that drum beat, and I know that it’s going to be alright because it’s been alright for a long goddamn time. It’s in the blood. You can’t take it away. It’s in us. We’re beautiful. And can’t nobody say nothing about it. That’s what I love.
Photo by IMDB