Making The Cut: Joi McMillon Reflects On 'Moonlight,' Her History Making Oscar Nod

Film editor Joi Mcmillon struck gold on her first feature film: the Academy award–winning 'Moonlight'. She also snagged an Oscar nom herself, becoming the first Black woman to do so for editing. Here's how she did it.

Jihan Thompson May, 29, 2017

ESSENCE: We never really hear about the job of a film editor. What does it entail?

JOI McMILLON: Editors are responsible for taking the first pass on a scene and choosing the best takes and moments based off the script and performances. Then we assemble them into one shot. The first time directors watch a scene, they see all the choices the editors have made. We’re known as the fixers, because we try to fix problems that have arisen on set due to locations and timing constraints. We shape the film to the best of our ability and try to make the directors happy when they view the first cut. One of the best compliments an editor can receive from a director is, “You’ve made all the choices that I would’ve made.” In that moment the trust is built

ESSENCE: How did you get into this?

McMILLON: In high school we took a tour of Universal Studios, and on that tour there was an editor from Animal Planet who was cutting a scene of a dog catching a ball. He had the ability to rewrite the story. I wanted that power. After that I went home and researched film schools. Barry [Jenkins, the Moonlight director], the movie’s cinematographer and I were all in the same class at Florida State. My coeditor was a year ahead of us. And one of the producers was a year behind us.

“The first time directors watch a scene, they see all the choices the editors have made.”

ESSENCE: Before collaborating with them, you spent years working on reality TV shows like NBC’s The Biggest Loser. What made you go there?

McMILLON: When I first started, I wasn’t qualified for some projects, because I wasn’t in the union. To get into the union, you have to complete 100 days of nonunion work. At the time a lot of the nonunion work was in reality television. Initially I went there to get 100 days of work, but I ended up staying for two and a half years.

ESSENCE: How is editing reality TV different from editing a feature film?

McMILLON: With reality television…there were a few execs who would come and see a cut, but it was hands off. At film studios there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. You need to know when to speak and when not to speak, and basically anticipate people’s needs. Politics is just a lot more intricate in that world.

ESSENCE: What was it like trying to break into such a male-dominated industry?

McMILLON: It’s funny because the first editor I worked for in feature films was a Black woman. She was the first and the last. But I also worked with Maysie Hoy, who’s Asian-American. She’s a boss. She taught me to have confidence in who you are as an editor, and to speak not only with consideration and compassion but also with control. You walk into a room and people have preconceived notions of what you can do and how smart you are, but you can’t focus on that, because it will distract you.

ESSENCE: What did you learn from editing Moonlight?

McMILLON: One thing I learned was to trust the story. I often feel as if people try to quicken the pace or add music or cut the scene really fast to keep the audience engaged. But you can trust the silences and the moments you see and don’t necessarily hear.

This feature originally appeared in the June 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.

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[SOUND] Hey Essence, I'm Dana Blair. Joining me now via Skype is Joy McMillan, a co-editor for the Oscar-nominated film Moonlight. Hey Joy! Hi, how are you? I am fabulous. I was very happy to see you. Good to see you too. Now, I read that you started in reality TV. And that this is the first feature film that you edited. So, what was it like to get that first yes for a major film? It was very exciting because I've actually interviewed for quite a few features and, Every single time you interview you feel this is gonna be it. This is gonna be my time to shine. And then, you don't get the job. So, finally being able to be an editor on Moonlight was so awesome and I knew that Barry was gonna have an amazing story that he was going to tell, and I was so happy to be a part of it. Now, for those of us that don't know, What exactly does a film editor do? It's hard to say cuz we wear a lot of hats. A lot of people say that editing is the final re-write of, And so basically, what we try to do is help shape the movie and put forth the best product possible. Sometimes it takes restructuring scenes, sometimes it takes deleting scenes all together. And sometimes it's like You have to really look at the after and see the performance that they are delivering and you try to make it and shape it to the best way possible. So we do a lot in the editorial room but sometimes a lot of people don't notice us because you're not supposed to notice our editing you're just supposed to walk out and say that was an amazing film. So, invisible art, invisible artists is what a lot of people say So Joy, how many other Black woman have you come across in our field?>> I've actually worked with Terilyn Shropshire. She was the first feature film editor that I worked with on a film called Talk to Me and she's amazing. She She's collaborated with Kasi Lemmons. And she's collaborated with Gina. They did Love and Basketball which is one of my favorite movies. And there's also an amazing documentary editor and I think she's now working in television right now. Lillian Benson, who's also African-American and so, I just saw her last night and she said congratulations. And I said well, congratulations to you for paving the way. Because there's not too many of us. But the one's who are working in this industry they're powerhouses. That this is based on remarkable work. You mentioned, you know, and edit, you can name pretty much every other African American, or African American woman in your field. This is like this is a very small group of you. Can you tell us about a time when you were under estimated or misidentified in this field? I believe I read an article where you mentioned that, They thought you were often with the costume department, of something completely not tech related if you will. Could you share a story, some of that for me. Yes, When we were in Toronto, someone asked me like, do you have a film here, and I was like yes I've worked on Moonlight, and they are like, you were in it. and I was like no And did you do costume design? And I was like, no, I'm an editor. And they're like I don't know if I've ever met a black editor before. Wow. And I was, here I am [LAUGH]. In the flesh. Tha's me. Exactly. [LAUGH] Joy, you are such a amazing spirit, thank you so much for being an inspiration and a pioneer and your space and encouraging and showing so many other young ladies like hey, we can do this too. Thank you so much for having me. [MUSIC]