A screening at the Cosford gives UM President Julio Frenk an opportunity to talk to one of the creative forces behind the Academy Award-nominated ‘Moonlight’
By Robin Shear
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (January 30, 2017)—The evening after Moonlight received eight Academy Award nominations, the University of Miami hosted a special screening event at the Cosford Cinema, with a Q&A between UM President Julio Frenk and Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright and Miami native whose largely autobiographical work inspired the critically acclaimed film.
McCraney has been a professor of theater and civic engagement in UM’s College of Arts and Sciences since 2015. During that time he also launched an arts leadership project for young women of color at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, one of the local resources that gave McCraney a rare refuge from the poverty, crime, and bullying he struggled with growing up in the neighborhood.
After last Wednesday’s screening of the 111-minute drama, currently slated to run at the Cosford through February 9, a visibly affected audience paused briefly before breaking into applause.
Moonlight, already a Golden Globe winner for Best Picture-Drama, tells the story of Chiron, also nicknamed “Little” and “Black,” in three gripping acts. Chiron lives with his drug-addicted mother in Liberty City during the turbulent 1980s. With troubles at home and school, the quiet but intense Chiron (pronounced shy-rone) traverses dangerous terrain, buoyed by fleeting moments of sanctuary and support from a drug dealer named Juan, based on a significant figure in McCraney’s youth. Unlike Chiron, McCraney took another path and went on to become a renowned playwright, recognized in 2013 with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
“This is a stunning example of how artists can move us to new understandings of our world,” Frenk said during his introduction of McCraney, who has “story by” and executive producer credits on Moonlight. “Tarell is a son of Miami. He is an artist of Miami. And he is an advocate for Miami. The film we just saw is such a beautiful, poetic, loving portrait of our incredible city in all its dimensions.”
But it is a story that might never have been widely known. When McCraney was 22, his mother died of AIDS-related complications. Trying to make sense of his life up to that time, he wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Though never staged, almost a decade later the work came to the attention of director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins, also raised in Liberty City. Their collaboration has garnered a powerful response that has pushed the self-described “painfully shy” McCraney into a new kind of spotlight.
Among Moonlight’s eight Academy Award nominations are Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Director. At the Q&A on January 25, McCraney spoke openly and eloquently about what it was like to be part of such an intensely personal project and why he thinks it has resonated with audiences and critics as one of the best films of the year.
Crediting the authenticity Jenkins brought to the screen and a “one-of-a-kind” ensemble cast, McCraney said, “There hadn’t been this kind of storytelling in a while, specifically about people of color from this part of the world. I think there was an appetite for it.”
He also credited School of Communication lecturer Rafael Lima, who taught playwriting at McCraney’s high school, with the words of wisdom that helped him begin to share this poignant and intimate piece.
“I had tried to figure out ways to create the story before and didn’t really understand how to do that,” said McCraney. “He said, ‘If a story keeps coming to you visually, then it’s a film. If you hear it, then it’s a play.’”
Asked by Frenk what he would tell young people who live in a world where they, like Chiron, may face violence in terms of their race, sexual orientation, or any other dimension of their identity, McCraney replied, “I don’t know if I would tell them anything, to be fair. Having sat in that chair and having to listen to adults figure out how to fix an ill of society by telling you something feels counterintuitive. The thing I often try to do in those circumstances is show them where they actually belong. One of the initiatives I’ve appreciated since I’ve been here at the University is the Culture of Belonging because it’s a powerful tenet. We have work to do here, but that’s where it all starts. One of the things that Juan does in the film for Little is he says, ‘You belong somewhere, you’re a part of something.’ And that’s what I would try to show rather than say.”
Praising Moonlight, School of Communication Dean Gregory Shepherd asked McCraney to expand on the character of Juan, complexly portrayed by Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali. McCraney started with an anecdote about walking up to Ali backstage after seeing the movie with an audience for the first time in Toronto. “My tie was askew and [Ali] started fixing it,” recounted McCraney, “and I burst into tears because for me he had just sort of transformed into this person I had not seen since I was 6 or 7 years old.”
The character of Juan, he explained, was based on his mother’s boyfriend, a man named Blue. “He was a drug dealer, and he was every bit of a hero to me,” McCraney said. “He taught me how to ride a bike. He taught me how to swim. He told me that I was good enough. He often stemmed my mother’s abuse from affecting me in many ways. I was the best-dressed kid in Liberty City for a long time. I always wanted to honor that memory but not expunge it of any of the things that, actually, he did.”
Thanking McCraney for coming to speak to one of his classes previously, UM student Jeremy Penn asked him to discuss the bullying and violence portrayed in the film and how the “school and police fail to address the systemic issues that are going on.”
McCraney said that in his own life the system didn’t fail him. “At some point the bullying stopped because I was led out of danger,” he explained. He was offered free classes at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center and attended the New World School of the Arts, “so I could be in a place that was just a little bit more accepting of who I was.”
But that’s not everyone’s story. McCraney notes that Chiron’s story doesn’t follow his own trajectory of success. “One of the reasons I wrote [the story] in that way was, what if I took that one missed step to the left? And both things cost. No matter what school I’m at, no matter what instructor I’m with, I still carry the scars of that time.”
President Frenk concluded by thanking McCraney—who will be returning to his alma mater, the Yale School of Drama, in July to serve as chair of the playwriting department—for his artistic creation, his work at UM, and his service to the greater Miami community.
“Obviously on Oscar night all your friends and family at the U are going to be rooting for Moonlight. We hope it does very, very well,” said Frenk. “We wish you well—and you know this will always be the home where you truly belong.”
The evening was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of Civic and Community Engagement, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Communication.