Alan Yang’s 3 Most Illuminating Revelations on Directing Jay-Z’s ‘Moonlight’ Video

By Sameer Rao Aug 09, 2017

Aziz Ansari‘s "Master of None" co-pilot Alan Yang brought his eye for telling compelling stories with people of color to "Moonlight"—no, not that "Moonlight," but the Black star-studded music video for Jay-Z‘s "4:44" song of the same name. 

The International Movie Database (IMDb) notes that the video, which only subscribers to Hov’s Tidal streaming service can see in full at press time, recasts the hit ’90s sitcom "Friends" with an entirely Black cast—a seeming response to criticism about the show’s all-White cast, despite being set in racially diverse New York City. The video imagines Issa Rae ("Insecure"), Tiffany Haddish ("Girls Trip"), Tessa Thompson ("Creed"), Jerrod Carmichael ("The Carmichael Show"), LilRel Howrey ("Get Out") and Lakeith Stanfield ("Atlanta") as the titular friends, complete with hijinks, a laugh track and Carmichael’s descent into existential dread.

Yang talked to Vulture yesterday (August 8) about the surreal experience of directing the video. Check out these three key excerpts before you either subscribe to Tidal or wait a few days to see it on other streaming platforms, per Yang’s tweet above: 

On the cancelled meeting with Hov that led to "Moonlight":

I was in L.A. taking some meetings and I got a call from my commercial agent and he said, "Hey, when are you leaving L.A.?" I said my flight’s at 4 p.m. today, and he goes, "How would you like to meet Jay-Z at 1?" Yeah, cool! At the last second, Jay actually couldn’t go to that first meeting, but I met with his manager, Chaka Pilgrim, and she explained the project to me, which was this very secret album called "4:44" that no one knew about yet. She said they wanted to create this visual component and she asked if I’d heard the song "Moonlight." I said no, so she called Jay’s engineer, [Young] Guru, and the first time I heard the song was on her cell phone. She was like, "If you have any ideas, let me know," so I asked if they had any ideas. She said they maybe wanted it to be funny or be a sitcom. I flew back to New York and I really racked my brain because an opportunity like this doesn’t come up all the time, and I sent them treatments for two ideas, and the one I really loved was the "Friends" one, and that’s the one they responded to, too.

On "Moonlight’s" casting:

It’s really a dream cast for me, just a deep roster of talent, not unlike the original cast of "Friends." So many different personalities and so much charisma. Jay and I both wanted Jerrod Carmichael from the start. We thought he’d be perfect for Ross, and I think Jay had been wanting to work with Jerrod for a while, and I’d been friends with Jerrod for years. We used to go out to dinner in L.A. while we were developing our shows. I’m not sure how Jerrod felt about the idea originally—obviously, it’s very crazy, so if he was skeptical at all, he certainly had a good reason to be. I found out he was in New York, so I texted him to hang out. He came over to my apartment and we went out to dinner down at Pasquale Jones in the Lower East Side and ate some pasta, and I just really did my best to sell him hard. Finally, he agreed to do it.

The dominoes started to fall from there; we got Issa Rae, Lakeith [Stanfield]. Some of them I just called, like Tessa Thompson. Lil Rel was in from the beginning, he was so excited. The great thing is we shot this a couple months ago, and since then, "Girls Trip" came out and Tiffany [Haddish] is like a nuclear bomb in that movie. She’s unbelievably funny, holy shit! She steals every scene. So it’s a real murderer’s row in the video. I was always firmly in the camp of, let it be the right generation of Black actors and actresses, and let it be this new crop of up-and-comers ready to explode. They’re not top-lining movies yet, but they will be soon.

On the video’s intent: 

I know people might look at the video as some sort of implicit criticism of shows, but, to me, that wasn’t really the intention. I say that with complete honesty. I think "Friends" is a really good show, it’s a well-made show. So it was less pointing a finger at that show or any network and more of a balance of, look how far we’ve come as a culture in terms of representation onscreen. Look how far we still have to go. And look at how important it is that we get the opportunity to tell our own stories and create our own art. I don’t wanna be didactic and preach to people and tell them what the video means. But this video does not come from an angry place. It’s more to point things out and start a conversation rather than try to shame people.

"Moonlight’s" title refers to both the film and the #OscarFail involving it and "La La Land," which Hov references in the song’s chorus: "Y’all stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose." His verses play over the video’s ending, which features an anguished Carmichael exiting the "Friends" set to sit on a moonlight-bathed park bench in solitude.