Moonlight: The small-budget film that is sweeping Hollywood awards

  • Published
Moonlight film stillImage source, David Bornfriend
Image caption,
Moonlight only took 25 days to film and is now a frontrunner for Hollywood awards

It's been hailed by critics as diverse film-making at its best, but the director of Moonlight says the film is not a response to the #OscarsSoWhite criticism of last year's award season.

Miami-born filmmaker Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the film, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, about a young African American boy named Chiron coming to terms with his sexuality as he grows up in a tough Florida neighbourhood.

However, while the shoot took only 25 days, Jenkins says he conceived the project "at least three-and-a-half years ago".

He explains: "That's fairly average because it takes a long time for a film to get made.

"So all these movies we have this year - Birth of a Nation, A United Kingdom, Loving, Fences - which are being framed as a reply to the campaign about the lack of diversity in the system, probably began about four years ago.

"So the cry about the lack of voices and representation on our screens actually goes much further back and now films like ours are beginning to surface."

With a budget of around $5m (£4m), Moonlight has now made twice that figure at the North American box office, and has screened to almost universal acclaim at festivals including Telluride, Toronto and London.

Image source, David Bornfriend
Image caption,
Naomie Harris says she's been 'overwhelmed' by the response to the film

Mahershala Ali, best known for playing Captain Boggs in The Hunger Games, and British actress Naomie Harris both secured acting nominations from the Golden Globes.

The film is also nominated for best drama, best director, best screenplay and best original score.

Harris says she "put heart and soul into this little film - we all did".

She plays Chiron's drug addict mother and had to complete her scenes in three days.

"It had a really small budget, and everyone did it because they were passionate about it. It's a very rare film - it speaks of a very profound love," she says.

"And the response we've had has been overwhelming - I think people are hungry for these kinds of stories."

Film critics now believe the race for awards glory is between Moonlight, Damien Chazelle's musical La La Land and Manchester By The Sea by Kenneth Lonergan.

"You always hope to be part of endeavours that resonate with audiences," Mahershala Ali says. "But you don't want it to reflect how you approach the work.

"It's just humbling being part of the conversation, especially after a much-needed shake up in the industry about people of colour," he continues.

"But I want the film to be rewarded on it own merits, not because it's a film of diversity. As an African American, you just want to see projects go ahead that have 'other' faces in them with the potential to stand up against any film.

"You know, we had this same conversation a few years ago when the film Precious came out, about change. I hope it's a wake up call, because I know a lot of wonderful directors and writers who didn't get their films made because they didn't fit the type."

Image source, David Bornfriend

Barry Jenkins's last film, 2008's Medicine for Melancholy, about African Americans struggling to fit in to the hipster scene of San Francisco, also featured themes of being an outsider in a community.

While many have highlighted a lack of Hollywood films giving gay characters a platform over the years, Jenkins points out that Brad Pitt's Plan B company part-produced Moonlight, and says there was "never a sense that what we were doing was unorthodox or provocative".

The film had "multiple offers of financing", he explains.

"However, I have never seen characters like this in a movie before, and between Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and now, there have been too few representations of gay characters in cinema.

"I would certainly welcome more of it, because there's always going to be some kid who needs to see himself or herself on screen, and the more people who see the film, the more likely that kid is to go out and write something themselves one day, and then the vacuum is further filled.

"There's also the need for someone to see it to know they are not the only one in the world going through these ordeals of adolescence, that's been a positive of talking so much about the film. When I actually saw the play those years ago, there was so much up there that reminded me of myself."

Image source, David Bornfriend
Image caption,
Lead character Chiron is played by three different actors as a child, teenager and adult

Naomie Harris adds: "I want this film to get as much attention as possible, because it absolutely deserves it, in my opinion. It's got a unique perspective.

"Perhaps it's because my mum is a scriptwriter herself, I think the key to success is always in the writing and what we need is to help young diverse talent.

"The cry for more diversity on screen was a long time in coming, we've needed it, and I hope this year we are finally beginning to see it."

Moonlight will be released in the UK on 17 February.

Follow us on Facebook, on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts, or on Instagram at bbcnewsents. If you have a story suggestion email