Directed by relative newcomer Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is a film adapted from Terell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Production on the film, financed by A24, PASTEL, and Plan B, began in late 2015; the film was released in November of 2016.
Moonlight tells the story of a young black boy, Chiron, growing up in Liberty City, Miami during the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s. Identified as gay by his peers before he understands what such a term means, Chiron does his best to keep his head above water, dodging bullies and even his own mother, who later succumbs to an addiction to crack. As he grows older, Chiron develops a hard outer shell, following in the footsteps of his childhood father figure, Juan, a drug lord that sold to Chiron’s mother. As he finds his footing as a gangster, both “hard” and “soft,” Chiron must confront his unresolved feelings for his childhood best friend, Kevin, with whom he had his first sexual encounter in the moonlight on a Miami beach.
Moonlight won the Academy Award in 2017 for Best Picture, an event that many characterized as an upset to more traditional, less diverse films in the running that year. The most notable of these was Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which was initially announced as the winner of the Oscar when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the announcers for the award, were handed the wrong envelope. Moments after the cast and crew of La La Land stormed the stage to celebrate, an Oscars staffer whispered to Jordan Horowitz, the producer of La La Land, about the mistake, prompting Horowitz to announce on the microphone that Moonlight had actually won the prestigious award. This marked the first time in Oscars history that an incorrect winner was announced (“‘There’s a Mistake’”). Moonlight was also nominated for seven awards besides Best Picture, taking home wins in the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor categories as well. Moonlight also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, and was nominated for five other Golden Globe awards.
For some critics, La La Land symbolized Hollywood’s general lack of effort to write diverse roles for women, racial minorities, or the LGBTQ community. By contrast, Moonlight came to symbolize a coming wave of fresh voices from black filmmakers, one that might upset the status quo of mostly-white films that dominate mainstream movie history. The Oscars flub, though accidental, highlighted this contrast.
Beyond the awards world, Moonlight has received nearly universal acclaim as an art film that broke through to the mainstream public. It was especially notable for its role as the film with the lowest budget in Oscar win history, coming in at $1.5 million. Indiewire has noted that a mere 30-second commercial aired during the Oscars costs $2.2 million (“‘Moonlight’ Wins Again”).
Before Moonlight, Jenkins was primarily known for his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, which received mild but positive acclaim. Producer Adele Romanski—who, alongside Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, would go on to produce Moonlight—urged Jenkins to make a second feature (“To Give Birth to ‘Moonlight’”). When a friend emailed him McCraney’s yet-unpublished script, he instantly recognized his own upbringing in Liberty City, Miami and decided to adapt the play for the screen (“From Bittersweet Childhoods to ‘Moonlight’”). After a series of talks with McCraney, Jenkins completed the script on a month-long visit to Brussels (“Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Journey”).