Perspective: Barry Jenkins in Two Parts
At Shabazz On Saturday, January 27th at 5 PM, Barry Jenkins, director of the widely-acclaimed film Moonlight (2016), was set to speak with Black students at a Shabazz Center dinner discussion. The busy man was running late, but we were very willing to wait. Students chattered and drifted around the room, clustering in friend groups. Professor Derrick White, who would facilitate the dinner discussion, was mostly front and center, but he moved to talk with students, and students moved to him. It was clear that he is a pillar for so many Black students here, who he knows by name.
As we waited for Jenkins, I looked at the murals that would frame he and Professor White -- particularly the section with the varied studies of Malcolm X’s visage. Some faces were pensive, some faces were playful, all faces were asking viewers to see this Black man’s personhood -- this political and politicized figure’s depths. Near the faces of Malcolm X, I saw another striking image: in it there is a barred prison-window, but beyond it, there is a blue-black night with a moon. Beyond our prisons there is moonlight.
Moonlight shows us freedom that springs beyond the prisons of social suffocations -- beyond homophobia, anti-Blackness, neglect, classism, and other abuses, which stem from insecurity.
When Jenkins entered, he sped to his seat, greeted us, and explained that he hadn’t been able to find the building. Both having lived in The South and South Florida, Jenkins and White joked about the weather up North. Jenkins was surprised we still go to class in sub-zero weather, and White quipped that you wear “Timbs when it’s 45 degrees” down South. Laughter rippled in the audience.
When we were warmed up, Professor White got into the questions. The first one regarded the challenges and obstacles Jenkins has faced in his life and career. In his response, Jenkins remarked that it had been “a 16-year journey to be an overnight success.” He said all of his challenges “were kind of self-manifested,” in part from impatience for recognition after his 2003 graduation from Florida State’s film school. But uncontrollable circumstances surely played a part.
Jenkins grew up in the projects of Liberty City, Miami without access to arts or film equipment, and with a mother who had a drug addiction. Much of Moonlight was autobiographical. This includes maintaining the film’s setting as the hometown he shares with Tarell Alvin McCraney, the author of the ‘play’ Moonlight was adapted from: “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”. Jenkins recalls he and McCraney having to prove their Liberty-City roots to residents before they could film in the neighborhood, which had changed a lot since they left.
While Jenkins spoke to us in Shabazz, his storytelling was lined with cussing. He joked that he needed to get it out of his system before he spoke at The Hop, and we laughed knowingly. Spaces like Shabazz can be calms from the storms of majority-white spaces, and the insecurities they breed.
Though he now has many accolades to his name, including a pair of NAACP Image Awards and a pair of Oscars, Jenkins says insecurity doesn’t end with fame -- “there’s always this doubt.” When Moonlight was announced as the winner of the 2017 Best Picture Oscar (after a mishap), Jenkins spent 40 minutes backstage looking for the Best Picture announcement card, not wanting to believe the win was true until he had physical proof. He said, “I just never assumed that somebody with my profile, my background, was going to win an award like ‘Best Picture’, especially making something in an uncompromised way -- aesthetically, politically, and narratively.”
In the question-and-answer portion of the dinner, Jenkins expressed a desire for people from his home to know life beyond societal expectations. He noted how kids from the hood are expected to find acclaim as entertainers or athletes, and little else. But people from the hood can be those things and more -- they can be the stars, and they can direct. Smiling, Jenkins remembered someone’s tweet from the 2017 Oscars, about how “all the white people [were] holding all the gold, and then this wave of Black people came onstage” -- interrupting their dominance. This makes me think of the carefully selected soundtrack for Moonlight, where the first song is “Every N*gger Is A Star”.
Some advice he gives to us college students, is to hold on to the work we’ve done in undergrad that we’re proud of -- as if he thinks we could use them when our stars shine.
I took some other needed advice home with me:
Take the time you need to make.
Jenkins said, when he was in film school, he took a year off to teach himself how to develop film for his projects. I think he saw shine in the distance, and gave himself time to get to it.
At The Hop
A little before 7 PM , our guest of honor had to go, but not too far yet -- his event at The Hop, “An Evening with Director Barry Jenkins”, would begin soon. Professor White led him out of Shabazz, both men brisk in their blue-black suits.
When I watched Barry Jenkins speak at The Hop, I saw a new study of him. The cussing man whose head and hands would sway as he spoke had stepped into another man -- equally Jenkins, but far more careful and composed. He put his hand over his mouth while he was listening.
A film-reel of Jenkins’ work preceded the round of questions led by Sydney Stowe, Acting Director of Hop Film. The reel included clips from MY JOSEPHINE (2003), Chlorophyll (2011), and the three chronicling chapters of Moonlight (i. Little, ii. Chiron, iii. Black). Stowe praised Johanna Evans, Director of the Dartmouth Film Society, for assembling this reel, and said Evans saw one theme that connects Jenkins’ diverse works: love.
It seems Jenkins would agree. He diverged from the morbid ending of the play that inspired Moonlight, where the lovers don’t meet again and Kevin is killed in a drug deal. He chose instead to give screentime to the affections of Chiron and Kevin, without “voyeuristic” sex scenes. Especially because he is a straight man without lived experience of queerness, approaching Chiron and Kevin’s relationship with care was important to Jenkins. Describing their first kiss, he said Kevin was “guiding [Chiron] to the light.” He describes the buff, adult Chiron, named ‘Black’, as “delicate.”
Jenkins intimated that some find Moonlight’s ending so romantic that they can’t believe it, but to that he says: “fuck it, it’s art, it’s not real life.” He struggled to keep his pledge to not cuss at The Hop in his passion. And this is his passion -- film. Onstage he said, “I don’t have a career but a passion.”
A question that was submitted to Jenkins for the post-reel discussion, asked for advice on how aspiring filmmakers should tackle complex issues like masculinity and queer representation in their work. To this, Jenkins responded, “I don’t set out to tackle issues… I think the idea of making work that is meaningful is something you can distinguish from making work that addresses issues… I try to work from the character first.”
Moonlight’s ability to stir people across identity and background (even “the old white men in The Academy”, as Jenkins and Stowe joked) seems to stem from the filmmakers’ genuine care for the living people their characters borrow from. Jenkins and McCraney were writing of home. That rung in people.
Among Jenkins last words on this stage were, “I do approach the idea of love as an idealist … as this thing, that I think, could bring us all together.” As he prepared to exit the stage, as when he arrived, the audience came together in a standing ovation.
I and many others look forward to seeing Jenkins’ work on the “Underground Railroad” series and “If Beale Street Could Talk”, an upcoming adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. Jenkins said he had the latter project in mind far before the Oscars named him a winner.