An Evening with Director Barry Jenkins: On Filmmaking, Winning an Oscar, and Love

On January 27th, Barry Jenkins traveled from his residence in sunny Los Angeles to the unusually warm but still icy town of Hanover. He was set to speak at the Hopkins Art Center to discuss Moonlight and his journey as a filmmaker. Jenkins agreed to hold a more intimate discussion in Shabazz with the Black Caucus before the public event. About fifty students and faculty piled into the mural room to engage in a conversation that would be led by Professor Derrick White.  

Questions for Jenkins began with his upbringing and what led him to filmmaking. “I thought I would never make it here,” he said. Jenkins, who grew up poor and with a mother who struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine, was encouraged to pursue a future in athletics instead of the arts. “It takes time and patience,” Jenkins tells the crowd after admitting that he had given up about three times before winning an Oscar.  

The 38-year-old director, producer, and screenwriter was born in Liberty City, a predominately African American neighborhood in Miami, Florida. A graduate of Florida State University, Jenkins spoke fondly of the colleagues he had met in film school who later played instrumental roles in the creation of Moonlight. “We were there for each other,” he remarked, recounting a time where he was “up 48 hours helping [his] colleague finish a short film about the color blue.” The absurdity of the assignment was not lost on him. “It doesn’t matter now because I would not have anyone else helping me with my projects. I’d rather work with people I love than strangers,” he reflected.

At the Hopkins Center, the audience was able to explore more of Jenkins’s work. Sections of Medicine of Melancholy, Dear White People—the Netflix original based on the film of the same name—, and Best Picture Oscar-winning Moonlight were played for the audience. It was difficult to ignore the underlying theme throughout all of his work—love. “Moonlight is a love story, and it searches boundaries that have not been seen in Hollywood before,” Jenkins said. He had not expected Moonlight, a “movie about two Black men searching their sexual identity” to win an Oscar, though.

The discussion at the Hop was much shorter than the one at Shabazz. On stage, Jenkins conversed with the director of the film and media department about his upbringing, staying intact with his roots while being an Oscar-winning director, his partnership with Pastel, and his future works. Students were also able to ask questions. One student asked if Jenkins had considered the impact that Moonlight would have internationally. The student, a Middle Eastern male questioning his sexuality, explained that the trajectory of Chiron (the main character in Moonlight) was one that was parallel to his own life. Jenkins exclaimed, “It shocked me that Moonlight made more revenue abroad than it did in the States.” Moonlight grossed 27.8 million dollars in the United States, and 37.2 million in foreign territories.

Barry Jenkins ended the discussion on an inspiring note: “After winning an Oscar for Moonlight, I knew that this is the type of work I wanted to do. No matter if I did not win the Oscar, in those two minutes where uncertainty was heavy during the award ceremony, I would be just as proud and motivated.”


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