Barry Jenkins: Life Liberty & the Pursuit of Filmmaking
Moonlight’s incredible success at the Oscars earlier this year hasn’t changed Barry Jenkins, whose upbringing in Miami’s Liberty City housing project inspired him to make the film.
Showbiz personalities who materialize out of seemingly nowhere to seize a pop-culture moment—or an Academy Award—can occasionally be expected to assume airs of false modesty. No one, however, can accuse Barry Jenkins of putting on an act. The 37-year-old Miami native shocked the world when Moonlight, his piercingly intimate drama about a young black man’s coming of age, won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture. Just moments before Jenkins learned of his big win at the Oscars, Faye Dunaway had mistakenly announced that the musical La La Land had won the Oscar.
“I had the kind of experience very few people have,” Jenkins told a crowd at Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Concert Hall during a post-Oscar visit to his alma mater in March. “For two minutes, I didn’t win best picture, and I felt damn fine with it. I was already on the phone, texting my folks, saying, ‘Where’s my champagne?’”
The Great Oscar Goof was an unscripted, dramatic climax to an amazing journey for Moonlight, and for Jenkins and a close-knit team of artists, many of whom first met as students at FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts in the early 2000s. Since the award ceremony, the group hasn’t lost any momentum. This summer, The New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis ranked Moonlight No. 20 on their list of the 25 best films of the 21st century. Scott wrote that the film “demonstrates that honest, alert storytelling and formal inventiveness can have political implications. Like [its protagonist] Chiron, the movie never raises its voice or makes an overt argument.”
Jenkins was not so soft-spoken when asked for details on his next film, offering an emphatic “No!” to the inquiring minds who attended his talk at FSU. Beyond his cinematic pursuits, Jenkins is the writer and director of a new dramatic series for Amazon, based on Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a National Book Award winner. The novel reimagines the historical network as an actual railway that carries slaves out of the American South to freedom. The project reunites Jenkins with his Moonlight team, including producer Adele Romanski, his former classmate. In May, it was reported that Pastel, the production company that Jenkins runs with Romanski and two other partners, had signed a two-year production deal with Annapurna Pictures, the motion picture company led by 31-year-old Hollywood game-changer Megan Ellison. Their first project is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, scheduled to begin shooting in October.
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The filmmaker hasn’t always been so successful, of course. As he told students at the FSU film school earlier in the day, accompanied by friends and Academy Award-nominated Moonlight editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon, he faced a lot of suffering and struggle.
After college, Jenkins moved to Los Angeles and worked for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions for two years. Jenkins left L.A. for San Francisco—a romance was involved—where he ended up working at Banana Republic. With a $15,000 loan from a friend and the help of several key FSU classmates, he eventually made a breakthrough with his 2008 debut, the romance Medicine for Melancholy. It was almost a decade before he made another feature film. He had other things to occupy his time, of course, including jobs shooting commercials and a stint in the writers’ room of HBO’s The Leftovers. Still, much of the period was spent in what he called “development hell,” as one ambitious project after another failed to jell.
“I felt like I had a scarlet letter on my chest,” he told the students. “I hated going to film festivals, not capitalizing on that first film. At some point you’ve got to take a risk on yourself and your friends. Sacrifice is a big thing for all of us. I slept on a lot of couches. This was two years ago. It wasn’t 12 or 14 years ago. But sacrifice—there’s a trade-off for sure.”
Jenkins’s return to Tallahassee was that of a conquering hero, but, clad in a dark pullover sweater, an untucked Oxford shirt and black jeans, he was a characteristically low-key version of the archetype. At a glance, one might not have registered just how deep his Florida roots, and those of Moonlight, really run.
The film’s story, expanded from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, follows a child from a Liberty City housing project as he grows into manhood, embraces his sexuality and at last expresses his true inner self. Both Jenkins and McCraney spent their childhoods in the Liberty Square public housing complex, nicknamed Pork and Beans. They lived only a few blocks away from each other, although they never met as kids. Moonlight was filmed there.
“I do remember just how small the neighborhood was,” Jenkins said, in a conversation before the film had won any accolades. “It was shocking to think that the whole world could be such a small place.”
It was not the sort of place likely to encourage artistic endeavors. “I grew up pretty similar to the way the character Little grows up in the movie,” said Jenkins, whose childhood coincided with the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s.
“My mom became addicted to drugs pretty early.”
Thankfully, Jenkins had encouragement from an early age. “The only thing was, when I was in the third grade, I had this teacher. I remember my grandma used to take me fishing on the weekends, to the Everglades and the upper Florida Keys. We’d just fish off the side of a bridge.” The teacher asked Jenkins to write about those excursions and read his work to the class.
“The whole point was nobody else was getting out of the projects on the weekends, and she wanted me to share with my classmates what that was like. And that’s the first anyone ever told me to write my story down. I had her again for the fourth grade. She was the first person to tell me I was special. She used to tell me ‘Barry, you’re going to be the first black president,’” he explained.
(We both laughed. It was a Barry, just not a Jenkins.)
That experience continued to shape his evolution as an artist. A decade later, Jenkins moved to Tallahassee to study creative writing. “It wasn’t therapy,” he recalled. “I was drawn to the idea of creating things.”
While at FSU, he developed a bond with one of his professors, the novelist Elizabeth Stuckey-French.
“The first short story I remember writing in her class, it was so weird,” he said. “It was about this couple falling out of the sky. They lived in some kind of a penthouse, and some random single-prop plane came smashing through their window. It was pre-9/11, [but] I saw this image of people falling out of the sky. It was almost the ideal of how your life flashes before your eyes, and this guy is recounting the whole story of their relationship as they’re falling to the ground. Again, nothing to do with who I am or where I’m from, it was just an exercise. I had a dream and I wanted to see if I could turn that dream into a short story. I remember workshopping it in her class, and I felt like, ‘Oh this is cool, this thing didn’t exist before I wrote it. You can create things.’ I got hooked on the idea of creating things.”
Jenkins made a lasting impression on Stuckey-French. “You tend to remember certain kinds of students,” said the professor, who still teaches at FSU. “He already seemed focused, a centered person, and even then I could imagine him being totally at home in any kind of situation, talking to anybody. He didn’t come across as being full of himself. He was very poised and self-possessed and really curious about writing and everything. He was always watching and listening and taking everything in. He already seemed like he really had a vision and had something he wanted to express.”
This spring, the filmmaker joined McCraney in Miami to participate in the “Moonlight Celebration” and the christening of “Moonlight Way,” a stretch of NW 22nd Avenue adjacent to the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City. The men first met through Andrew Hevia, an FSU classmate who worked on Moonlight, and Lucas Leyva, one of the founders of the Borscht Corporation, a nonprofit group that promotes creative voices and cultural perspectives that are often stifled by the “mainstream.” The success of Moonlight “vindicated a lot of the rhetoric and purpose of the organization, that world-class artistic work can be created [here], giving people the belief that Miami stories matter,” said Leyva, who also oversees the cheerfully gonzo film festival that Borscht stages roughly every year-and-a-half.
Moonlight’s impact continues to resonate: With financial support from Jenkins and McCraney, a cinematic arts summer program was launched at the arts center, where McCraney himself once studied. Leyva recounted a story that Jenkins told about a moment during a brisk Miami shoot.
“He was filming in Liberty City, and he turns around and sees a bunch of kids from the neighborhood huddled around the video [monitors], trying on the headphones and watching him work,” Leyva recalled. “And [Barry] said he had a moment where he realized how insane it was. He had been one of those kids. He thought if he and his friends had seen someone like him, with actors that looked like them … maybe there would be a different sort of outcome for people in the neighborhood. Something as simple as seeing your story on film, told by people that look like you, and it being rewarded by peers who say this is something of value … I think it does something.”
It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the empathy inspired by the film, which seems to be a guiding light in Jenkins’s work, has significant and very topical real-life relevance. When he talks about the struggle of its vulnerable hero, what he describes sounds a lot like the fundamental fact of the blues.
“Right now, people need to see people who are dealing with things and not being destroyed by them,” Jenkins said. “This idea of perseverance of a human soul, I think it’s an idea people don’t realize … [there is] so much of the dark nature of the media coverage that we’re becoming accustomed to these days. I think people really respond to seeing another human being go through some very real things and persevere. People see this character Chiron [and] the very heavy world he’s living in and the very heavy things he’s dealing with. It didn’t fully destroy him, and by the end of the film, audiences have the idea that he’s going to go on, that he won’t be destroyed. And that resonates, you know?”