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Tarell Alvin McCraney: Academy Award-Winner Reflects On The Fifth Anniversary Of ‘Moonlight'

Tarell Alvin McCraney (Image courtesy of subject)

To say that 2016 was a whirlwind for Academy Award-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney would be an understatement. Five years after the film release of Moonlight, based on McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” and four years since taking home the top prize of Best Picture during an unprecedented live television mix-up—McCraney’s ascension from Liberty City, Florida, to Chair of Playwriting at The David Geffen Yale School of Drama, to creating the OWN series David Makes Man—now in its second season — has made the MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient a creative force of stage and screen. In his first interview with The Reckoning, McCraney opens up about his queer identity, collaborating with director Barry Jenkins to create a masterpiece, being awkward and reveling in going unnoticed on the street, and reactions to the last 20 minutes of Moonlight, and why some of it, for him, was troubling.

Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Reckoning: Can you talk about your journey coming into the fullness of who you are as a Black queer boy growing up in Liberty City, Florida? Do you feel comfortable in the skin that you're in today?

McCraney: Probably more comfortable than I have been, for sure. But, I think that requires agency. I find that I have the privilege now, through a lot of luck and a lot of grace and some space, to do some reevaluating. And so now I can kind of say, yeah, I'm awkward and people find me awkward, and that's okay. I'm okay with that. I'm not the only one that's awkward. I know a lot of people who grew up in circumstances like I did, who are awkward. I think one of the reasons why it was so important for us to do “David Makes Man,” which is a television show we do on the OWN Network, is to talk about that.

I think that it's taken a moment to get here, and I want to see if I can provide more space for more people to get comfortable with themselves. But first, we have to view it as a possibility. First, we have to see it as a possibility. I feel like I've figured out some of that. God only knows. It feels like the very tip of the iceberg. I feel like there's so much more that I haven't uncovered, even about myself and my wants and desires.

The Reckoning: Did you ever dream this big for yourself? Did you ever imagine that you would one day win an Oscar?

McCraney: When you don't understand how those institutions work, sometimes you just don't dream those things for yourself. I did dream of doing work and being engaged with lots of artists that I love and that's a dream come true. I'm very proud that we have an Oscar for Moonlight, particularly because it still feels like such a beautiful testament to working with amazing artists to create a vision. I'm excited about that, but I don't know if I ever dreamt of it. I feel like there's so much more to do. I’m still quite shy. I walk down the street and people don't recognize me, which is great. Many people have come into contact with my work in different ways. Sometimes they don't even connect the dots. Counter Narrative definitely helped with that. I remember when Choir Boy was in Atlanta, they ushered a lot of folks to go see it. And people go, “Oh my God, Choir Boy and Moonlight are connected?” People just don't get it, which is cool. There's no wrong way to engage in the work.

Tarell Alvin McCraney & Barry Jenkins (Image courtesy of subject)

The Reckoning: You have no qualms about centering Black queer folks and Black folks in general, in your work. Why is it important for you to create art that reflects Black queer life?

McCraney: It’s important to reflect on Black lives because I just don't think we get to see it often. Or we didn't get to see it often. And now we have many ways of seeing it, and we're getting many more, which is exciting. I think the question then becomes, what else are we missing? And that's where things start to get exciting. I want to give us a chance to see ourselves in all the possibilities. My process has been and always will be to make the intimate epic.

If you take a look at all the work that I've done, you can see that one moment and how it has reverberated out in many different ways. People are still asking what happened with Chiron and Kevin. I'm not a documentarian and I don't want to just get every moment of every single life. But there are these very intimate, powerful moments that play out in the epic, and that's usually what I go for.

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