Of the nine films nominated for best picture, fully one-third would not exist were it not for an A-list movie star leveraging personal clout to get the movie made in a system that simply doesn’t take those kinds of risks these days.
“Fences” is by far the most conventional example: Paramount had acquired the rights to August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1987 for Eddie Murphy to star, though it took three decades — and Denzel Washington’s involvement — to get it made.
Matt Damon willed “Manchester by the Sea” into existence. The project originated when Damon commissioned a script from playwright Kenneth Lonergan (coming off a trying experience on “Margaret,” in which Damon played a small role). Though he had originally entertained the idea of starring in “Manchester” himself, Damon ultimately decided to give the lead role to longtime amigo Ben Affleck’s kid brother, Casey.
But of the three projects, the most remarkable is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” which found its patron saint in Brad Pitt. Jenkins had impressed the Hollywood community with his 2008 ultra-low-budget, black-and-white debut feature, “Medicine for Melancholy,” landing an agent at CAA and developing a handful of other projects that never went forward.
Then, at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, Jenkins moderated a Q&A with director Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave,” where he met Pitt, one of that film’s producers via his Plan B shingle. Pitt was so impressed with Jenkins that he agreed to back an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
Needless to say, Hollywood doesn’t have much of a track record when it comes to greenlighting sensitive coming-of-age stories (unless they hail from hit YA novels), and those centered on African-American characters are rarer still. But Jenkins already had a champion in producer Adele Romanski. With the encouragement of Pitt and his Plan B partners, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, it became possible that a movie as special as “Moonlight” might come through “the system,” shepherded by experienced hands who could ensure that it found a distributor (in A24) and wouldn’t get lost upon release.
There are those who argue that pundits shouldn’t make such a big deal about Chiron, the main character in “Moonlight,” being black. Or gay. And yet, it does matter, because Chiron reps such a rare, yet vital, voice on the American cinematic scene.
“Moonlight” isn’t a rap star biopic (à la “Straight Outta Compton” or “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”) or a Tyler Perry movie (one of the precious few black voices permitted to adapt non-Pulitzer-winning plays in Hollywood). And while it’s hardly the only film to shine a spotlight on contemporary black lives, nearly all the others are made on the margins, as independent productions without the resources or experience to break out of the African-American or LGBT festival circuit.
Jenkins’ film is masterful on its own terms and if one thing’s certain, there are more, equally essential stories out there waiting to be told. But until the studios see the value in stories like “Moonlight,” we can only hope the stars continue to align behind them.