Sounds of a Genius: ‘Moonlight’ Oscar-Winner on His Musical Passions

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Tarell Alvin McCraney, the man behind Moonlight, shares the songs that inspire him.

“I don’t know if people of gay, lesbian, or queer status are more active dreamers than others,” McCraney says, “but when you are sort of pressed to have an inner world to yourself, you populate it with some fantastic people and things.”

McCraney, who wrote the play on which the Oscar-winning Moonlight was based, has long been an extraordinarily gifted writer, with a string of plays that explore the black experience in America, including Head of Passes, which had its world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Choir Boy (staged in both London and New York City), and his acclaimed trilogy, The Brother/Sister plays.

“City Called Heaven”  St Olaf Choir

I heard this in my first year of college, during winter break when everyone else had gone home. This song rang out and shone a spotlight on a pain I could not gather and pull out on my own. It spoke of slave narratives and cotton fields but also of not being enough for this world and longing to be accepted, to be gathered up and taken to the next. Something I had felt my whole life but could not express. The lyrics talk about hearing of a city where there is peace and the need to call that city, Heaven, my home.

“Flyin’ High”  Marvin Gaye

I heard this song very early in my life thanks to my parents, who had exquisite taste in music. It made me well up and cry, and I said to my mom, ‘I don’t understand why we would want to listen to it.’ And she said, ‘because this man is a genius. And this is what genius music is supposed to do.’ Later I discovered that my desires, and my need for self-control, as well as the battles with addiction around me, all found a call and response in this song. It is what genius music does. It allows us a conversation that we cannot have alone to come fumbling forward—like those salty tears I welled up the first time I listened to this.

“Free  Deniece Williams

The smell of marijuana in the air, air conditioning, and ocean breeze. This song reminds me of my neighborhood of Liberty City in Miami. The sound is both bitter and sweet, free and constrained.

“Hyper-ballad”  Bjork, Brodsky Quartet Version 

There are films, books, stories waiting to come spilling out of this liquid beauty.
I once saw a piece choreographed to Hyper Ballad when I was in High School and cried so much out of joy and pain, I think it was the first time I had felt or sensed the sublime. I could not explain how free I felt. I thought it was the ballet, but I listened to the song again on the train and instantly the world was animated by the song, the words, Bjork’s voice, the strings stirring… I wept again.

“I’m On My Way (Live)”  Mahalia Jackson 

Have you ever heard a live performance and felt you can see the entire concert in your mind, or at least can see the performer, the way their body moves towards or away from the microphone? This live version of this song, and Mahalia’s siren like call, the piano’s rhythm make me believe I am there, listening, amen-ing, swooning with the crowd as this vessel delivers spirit.

“Paranoid Android”  Radiohead

A masterpiece that shows us what modern day suites should look like. It takes the angst of an ever-growing electronically dependent future and explores the nuances of that generation. The song is so hot, then so cool, then so messy and silly and then smooth and succinct. It serves for me, always, as an example of what a large vision can accomplish.

“Rouge”  Lou Reed

I love this song. I choreograph solos to it in all the bedrooms I stay in around the world.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”  Tori Amos 

A perfect example of how to take a piece of work and turn it into something all your own, adding your own powers to the conversation that is already there. I love the original, and will never forget the day I came home from school, the video debuted on MTV and my mother was rocking out to this song: “These white boys are getting down.” I didn’t want to smile, although I can today, and did at the time in my heart. I loved that song and I’m glad she did too. But the Amos cover adds another layer that is at one time subdued and yet wild and unmanageable in pathos.

“Sinnerman”  Nina Simone

One, two, three; one, two, three; one, two, three. It’s a lesson in rhythm: where it can take us, where it can leave us, and how we can get back. I wrote my first play to the rhythm of this song. I just played it over and over and over and wrote and listened and cried and prayed and… one, two, three.

“Warda’s Whorehouse”  Phillip Glass & Foday Musa Sosa

Another song, intimate, haunting, refraining. I stumbled across it while doing research on Peter Brook, who used it for a production of Jean Genet’s The Screens. Its tight musical elements hearken to something ancient but serve a style that is contemporary. It wakes in me the want for discipline, but the need for carnality.

The Men of ‘Moonlight’ Star in New Calvin Klein Underwear Campaign

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Lead Photo: @CalvinKlein via Instagram

Fresh off their historic, surprise Best Picture win last night, the men of Moonlight have started off their new lives as Oscar darlings by stripping down to their skivvies for Raf Simons’ new underwear campaign for Calvin Klein. Even if they hadn’t taken home film’s biggest award, after seeing these photos, we would have decidedly declared this week belonging to them. Trevante Rhodes, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali look fabulous in the new images, shot by Willy Vanderperre. Take a look below:

Here’s ‘Moonlight’ Director Barry Jenkins’ Entire Historic NBR Acceptance Speech

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Photo: David Bornfriend via Wikipedia

Barry Jenkins made history yesterday when he accepted the award for Best Director at the National Board of Review for Moonlight, becoming the first black person ever to do so. Jenkins has already won Best Director this year from the African American Film Critics Association, Alliance of Women Film Journalists (as well as for Best Adapted Screenplay), Austin Film Critics Association (in addition to Best Original Screenplay), the Black Film Critics Circle Awards (also for screenplay), the New York Film Critics Circle, the Satellite Award for Best Screenplay, and countless more, making him a serious contender for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars – if he wins, he’ll be the first black winner of a Best Director Academy Award, and the third for Adapted Screenplay – he’d be the first for Original Screenplay, which Moonlight is sometimes considered, depending on the voters.

Read Jenkins’ full speech below.

I wasn’t going to say this, but shit, I’ve got to say it. So I know exactly where I was when I found out that I was going to receive this very prestigious honor from the National Board of Review. I was at a Q&A, and [publicist] Peggy Siegal ran in and said, “Oh my god, Barry Jenkins, you just won Best Director from the National Board of Review!” And she had this look on her face, and I was like, “Why does she look like that?” And then she said, “And you’re the first black director, the first black person to ever receive that distinction.” [Applause] I didn’t want to talk about this, but we’re here, so let’s talk about it. And so I wondered, “Why is that?” I looked through, this organization started in 1909, and I looked at all the names of best director. And they were all amazing names. And just like this year, we all have a choice, Kenneth Lonergan could be up here, Damian Chazelle could be up here, Pablo Larrain, Kelly Reichardt … There are so many people who made great work this year. You have a choice, and this year, you chose me. And in all those years, all those directors who were chosen made great films, but then I thought about it, and I said, “You know what? There were certain people who just weren’t considered. For so long, they were never considered. Until 2012, someone like Kathryn Bigelow had never been considered.”

So I want to thank you guys from the National Board of Review, for making this very kind gesture of considering me for this award, and bestowing it upon me. You know, the country is changing, the world is changing, and you know, we’re trying to make America great again. [Audience laughs] All I’m going to say is, I’m going to take this honor as a symbol of being considered. It’s a very considerable gesture of making America great again. And what I want to say is, I want to acknowledge this because as we make America great again, let’s remember some of the inconsiderable things in our legacy, because there was a time when somebody like me was not considered. Thank you very much.

Gotham Awards Noms Announced, ‘Manchester By The Sea’ Leads

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The nominations for the 2016 Gotham Awards, presented by the Independent Filmmaker Project, have been announced. The awards ceremony will take place Monday, November 28 and honor the best in indie filmmaking of the year.

Leading the pack with 4 noms is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck and breakout star Lucas Hedges. The film picked up acting noms for both its respective leads, as well as for Best Feature and screenplay.

Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, also is up for Best Feature, and picked up a special acting award (not nomination) for its entire cast.

Check out the entire list of noms:

Best Feature

Certain Women
Kelly Reichardt, director; Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savjani, producers (IFC Films)

Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater, director; Megan Ellison, Ginger Sledge, Richard Linklater, producers (Paramount Pictures)

Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan, director; Kimberly Steward, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck, Kevin J. Walsh, producers (Amazon Studios)

Barry Jenkins, director; Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, producers (A24)

Jim Jarmusch, director; Joshua Astrachan, Carter Logan, producers (Amazon Studios)

Best Documentary

Kirsten Johnson, director; Marilyn Ness, producer (Janus Films)

I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck, director; Rémi Grellety, Raoul Peck, Hébert Peck, producers (Magnolia Pictures)

O.J.: Made in America
Ezra Edelman, director; Caroline Waterlow, Ezra Edelman, Tamara Rosenberg, Nina Krstic, Deirdre Fenton, Erin Leyden, producers (ESPN Films)

Keith Maitland, director; Keith Maitland, Megan Gilbride, Susan Thomson, producers (Kino Lorber, Independent Lens)

Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, directors and producers (Sundance Selects and Showtime Documentary Films)

Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award

Robert Eggers for The Witch (A24)

Anna Rose Holmer for The Fits (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert for Swiss Army Man (A24)

Trey Edward Shults for Krisha (A24)

Richard Tanne for Southside with You (Roadside Attractions and Miramax)

Best Screenplay

Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan (CBS Films)

Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman (Amazon Studios)

Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan (Amazon Studios)

Moonlight, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney; Screenplay by Barry Jenkins (A24)

Paterson, Jim Jarmusch (Amazon Studios)

Best Actor*

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)

Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water (CBS Films)

Adam Driver in Paterson (Amazon Studios)

Joel Edgerton in Loving (Focus Features)

Craig Robinson in Morris from America (A24)

Best Actress*

Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship (Amazon Studios)

Annette Bening in 20th Century Women (A24)

Isabelle Huppert in Elle (Sony Pictures Classics)

Ruth Negga in Loving (Focus Features)

Natalie Portman in Jackie (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Breakthrough Actor*

Lily Gladstone in Certain Women (IFC Films)

Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)

Royalty Hightower in The Fits (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Sasha Lane in American Honey (A24)

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (A24)

* The 2016 Best Actor/Best Actress and Breakthrough Actor nominating panels also voted to award a special Gotham Jury Award for ensemble performance to Moonlight, “in which actors at all levels of experience give outstanding performances that speak eloquently to one another both within and across each chapter of the story.” The awards will go to actors Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Janelle Monáe, Jaden Piner, Trevante Rhodes, and Ashton Sanders.

Breakthrough Series – Long Form

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom & Aline Brosh McKenna, creators; Marc Webb, Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Erin Ehrlich, executive producers (The CW)

The Girlfriend Experience, Lodge Kerrigan, Amy Seimetz, creators; Steven Soderbergh, Philip Fleischman, Amy Seimetz, Lodge Kerrigan, Jeff Cuban, Gary Marcus, executive producers (Starz)

Horace and Pete, Louis C.K., creator; M. Blair Breard, Dave Becky, Vernon Chatman, Dino Stamatopoulos, executive producers (

Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Melissa Rosenberg, creator; Melissa Rosenberg, Liz Friedman, Alan Fine, Stan Lee, Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley, Jim Chory, Jeph Loeb, Howard Klein, executive producers (Netflix)

Master of None, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, creators; Michael Schur, David Miner, Dave Becky, executive producers (Netflix)

Breakthrough Series – Short Form

The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, Brian Jordan Alvarez, creator (YouTube)

Her Story, Jen Richards and Laura Zak, creators (

The Movement, Darnell Moore, Host (

Sitting in Bathrooms with Trans People, Dylan Marron, creator (Seriously.TV)

Surviving, Reagan Gomez, creator (YouTube)