At a time when Americans are lining up on opposite sides of what seems to be an increasingly wide divide, it was heartening that the film “Moonlight” won the best picture Oscar on Sunday night. The story of “Moonlight” follows the physical and emotional trials besetting a boy growing to manhood in one of Miami’s poorest black neighborhoods, Liberty City. I had seen it in the fall when it was featured at the Hamptons International Film Festival. On Saturday, I was fascinated by the man who adapted the “Moonlight” script from his play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue,” Tarell Alvin McCraney. Forget Horatio Alger, Mr. McCraney’s magnificent trajectory may prove that this country still is a land of possibility after all.
Mr. McCraney was destined for the creative life from the time he was in high school, at Miami’s New World School of the Arts. Like Chiron, the protagonist of “Moonlight,” he was tormented as a child for being gay. Mr. McCraney’s mother, like Chiron’s, battled drugs. Unlike Chiron, however, Mr. McCraney was a surrogate parent for three younger siblings. He nevertheless got a B.F.A. in acting from DePaul University in Chicago in 2003, and then became a graduate student at Yale, where he studied playwriting. Acclaim first came while he was at Yale for a trilogy of plays set in Louisiana among the Yoruba: “In the Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size,” and “Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet.” Skip ahead some 13 years, and he is now to become the head of Yale’s School of Drama, in July.
At the Academy Awards on Sunday, Mr. McCraney took the stage with Barry Jenkins, who directed “Moonlight,” after the award for best adapted screenplay was announced. Mr. Jenkins also grew up in Liberty City, and although they did not know each other there, he understood the autobiographical aspects of the story. Accepting the screenplay award, Mr. McCraney said they had had less than a month to shoot the film. Speaking of Mr. Jenkins, he said, “This man did it in 25 days with a cast and crew that was in and out in Miami in the dreaded heat. But we did that with love and compassion and fullness.” Because of the unheard-of mix-up in announcing the best picture, the “Moonlight” principals did not get to the stage to speak again. Earlier, however, McCraney had said, “This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming, who don’t see themselves. We’re trying to show you you and us. So thank you, thank you. This is for you.”
Along the way, Mr. McCraney has written six other plays and worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, for which he has directed a pared-down “Hamlet” and adapted “Antony and Cleopatra.” And, since 2013, he has been able to devote himself to his work as the recipient of a Windham Campbell Award from Yale and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
The director Joseph Adler, who met Mr. McCraney when he was a high school student in Miami, speaks of him this way: “Even though he’s gone on to international acclaim, the fact that he wants to come back makes him unusual. And he hasn’t changed a bit. His humility, compassion, and genuine concern for people are remarkable. . . . By that I mean profound, lasting, meaningful works along with what is as, or perhaps more, important: the ability to touch, inspire, and give back to those in the here and now. He is a gift-giver.”