Talent flows from God, or whatever mysterious force passes for such. But an artistic career is born of hopes, dreams, accidents and existential choices that conspire to make something special of the talented. For Barry Jenkins, the decidedly special writer-director of Moonlight, a controlling accident was the location of Florida State University’s small film school—its quarters are built into the football stadium. “I think they figured, we’re putting all this money into athletics, so we’d better give you an arts program,” recalls Jenkins, in a suite at West Hollywood’s London Hotel.
In the early part of the last decade, Jenkins, now 37, was a football fan, and a somewhat aimless college junior who had already changed majors from educational English to creative writing. He changed again, this time to film, not quite on a whim, but on an unusually fortunate impulse. “It was a total lark,” Jenkins says. The shift would stretch his classroom career to five-and-a-half years, as he had to start from scratch in the film school.
What happened next goes to the business of existential choices: Jenkins, essentially, failed. “My movies were not good,” he explains of his first efforts—not good enough in his own view to merit a spot in a backwater program school that had only about 75 students and few of those dazzling industry contacts that come with a cinematic education at the University of Southern California or New York University. “What am I doing here? I’m a kid from the projects. It was a rude awakening,” recalls Jenkins, who had grown up in a Miami ghetto, the son of a crack-addicted mother.
He took a year off; but the hiatus left him feeling uneasy. He was aware of whispers, he says, that he had been admitted partly because he was an under-represented African-American. Now, he was on the brink of blowing that opportunity, deserved or not. “There was a thing you’d hear, that I got in there because I was a black kid, and there weren’t any black kids in the program,” he recalls. “It was one of the few times I felt legitimate pressure, when I was taking that year off.”
So Jenkins bought a subscription to Sight & Sound, the British film monthly. And he started watching foreign movies, working his way straight through the international shelves at a local Blockbuster. His dream, he realized, was to make something markedly different from the work of his Florida State peers, who included Wes Ball, now working on the Maze Runner films for Fox, and Amy Seimetz, who directed Sun Don’t Shine and was a co-creator of The Girlfriend Experience.
On returning to the school, Jenkins found his voice with a 2003 short entitled My Josephine. Loosely inspired by the Asian and New Wave films he had been watching in what he calls his “very lonely year off”, it told the story of an Arabic man named Aadid who works the night shift in a laundry that cleans American flags for free in post-9/11 America, and is obsessed with Napoleon’s Josephine. And, as classmate Adele Romanski, a producer of Moonlight, recalled from the stage at a recent Los Angeles screening, it was widely regarded as the school’s best work. “I put in all the things I feel about being black in the South,” Jenkins recalls of a short that marked him as a cinematic artist.
Now, of course, he is riding a wave of acclaim for Moonlight, which has been welcomed by both critics and viewers since A24 introduced it at the Telluride Film Festival in early September, and is working its way toward Oscar night with recent wins from LAFCA and BIFA. Even more than My Josephine, Moonlight is packed with Jenkins’ feelings about being black in the South; based on Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film follows its lead character, Chiron, from childhood in the Miami project where both Jenkins and McCraney lived with drug-addicted mothers, to a self-created manhood. It is considered a strong contender for writing, acting, directing and Best Picture awards, though Best Actor consideration is a puzzlement—Chiron is alternately played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.
With or without Oscars, Moonlight has already completed Jenkins’ personal transformation, from a talented amateur to a professional filmmaker of stature. “There were tears and standing ovations, a reception that is likely to continue as the film makes its way into theaters,” wrote A.O. Scott, co-chief film critic of the New York Times, in describing Moonlight’s reception in Telluride.
Yet, by Jenkins’ own telling, it was never certain—nor even likely— that he would close a very wide gap between his film school moment and the present rush of an Oscar season. For most of the intervening 13 years, he was still sorting through accidents, choices, and vaguely conceived hopes that only lately came together.
First, there was a two-year interlude in Los Angeles. Jenkins worked for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, where he was an assistant to Darnell Martin, who was then directing the television film Their Eyes Were Watching God. At the time, says Jenkins, he had “no car, no money,” and no particular ambitions. Martin took care of the car: she bought Jenkins a Ford Taurus before moving to New York. As for ambition, “it went away. I like to say it was beaten out of me,” Jenkins says of his time on Hollywood’s bottom rung. He knew what he calls “important people”—Martin’s star Halle Berry, for instance—but he saw no path to a career of his own.
By 2007, Jenkins was in San Francisco. “I moved there for love”—not of movies, but of a woman, who eventually dumped him. To survive, he worked at Banana Republic. When people asked what he did for a living, he usually answered: “I’m a filmmaker.” If they asked what films he had made, he would say: “None.”
He was turning 27, and the pressure was back. “I realized I had learned to make movies without ever really having done it,” Jenkins says. This time, he looked around at San Francisco, in the throes of a tech-induced gentrification, and he thought about small, intimate films that had fascinated him. Those were not so much John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood or Poetic Justice—portraits of young black life that he knew and admired—but even slighter works, like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Claire Denis’ Friday Night. Then Jenkins began writing what eventually became his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy.
The film was financed by Justin Barber, a filmmaker-producer with whom Jenkins had gone to college. Barber had $15,000 in the bank; so that became the budget. James Laxton was the cinematographer, Nat Sanders the editor. Both filled the same roles on Moonlight. Loved by critics, and seen by almost no one else, the film peeked into the lives of two young San Franciscans whose lives crossed for a day and a night.
Jenkins was on his way—but mostly to a career shooting commercials, and developing scripts that for one reason or another, never became his next feature.
It wasn’t until about two years ago that classmate Romanski, by then established as the producer of small, romantic films like The Myth of the American Sleepover, pushed Jenkins toward a much overdue second feature. With support from Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner through their Plan B Entertainment, that next effort eventually became Moonlight.
As he steps through the awards season, Jenkins, finally a credentialed artist, is working on new projects. In September, for instance, word surfaced that he was collaborating with Plan B on a possible limited television series, to be based on Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. The story is both history and fantasy, about an alternate reality in which the Underground Railroad, which rescued slaves in the 19th Century, is assumed to have been a real railway.
A television project, it promises to pull Jenkins away from feature films, just as he is proving himself a master of the form. It is yet another choice, driven partly by the accidents of entertainment economics, as they have evolved since Jenkins first began struggling with his early student films 15 years ago. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” Jenkins says, when asked when he might make another movie, whether it would keep his budding repertory company together, and whether it would perhaps be larger and less personal than Moonlight.
“I’m getting older,” he notes. “There are things I need. I want to own a home.”