Is Moonlight Based on a True Story? The Answer Is Complicated

If you've seen the Golden Globe-winning drama Moonlight, you know how intensely raw it is. Drenched in genuine emotion, it would be more shocking to find out someone completely made up the story of Chiron than to hear that the events are based on a true story. Thus, it's not surprising that director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney admitted to The New York Times that much of the film parallels their own upbringings. Though they only met a few years ago, the men came of age in the same broken-down neighborhood in Florida — and the similarities don't stop there.

McCraney wrote the screenplay in 2003, the same year he first attended Yale University School of Drama and the same year his mother died of AIDS. A mutual friend handed the script to Jenkins, who was interested in making a film about growing up in Florida but didn't want to make it too personal. When he read McCraney's script, he asked the writer to revise the script. McCraney was too busy, so after several years, he adapted the script himself, putting more of his own story into it. Here are the parts of the film from their childhoods that are also in the film.

  • Jenkins and McCraney grew up in Liberty City, one of the poorest parts of Miami. They returned as adults to film Moonlight in Liberty Square, a housing project where they both lived as kids.
  • Both were born to mothers who got pregnant as teenagers, and both of their mothers became addicted to crack, later testing HIV-positive.
  • They attended the same elementary school (and were there at the same time, for a brief period), though only McCraney was bullied the way Chiron is in the film. While McCraney told The New York Times that at one point he "did snap," he wouldn't get into details about whether he had the same type of outburst that Chiron has in the film.
  • A central part of Chiron's story is his lack of understanding and eventual acceptance that he's gay; McCraney told The New York Times that he is "gay-identified."
  • Both McCraney and Jenkins admit that like Chiron, they largely chose to be silent as children. In the movie, it's a defense mechanism for Chiron; the less he says, the less reason his mother has to yell at him.
  • The character of Juan (Mahershala Ali) is inspired by one of McCraney's childhood role models: Blue, his younger brother's father. Blue protected him the way Juan looks after Chiron in the movie until Blue was fatally shot when McCraney was 6 years old.

So while the movie isn't 100 percent true to real life, it does incorporate quite a few elements from the filmmakers' lives, making it all the more poignant.