Meet Barry Jenkins, the Maverick Filmmaker Behind the Acclaimed New Indie 'Moonlight'

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There’s a lot of talented people behind Moonlight, the riveting new drama about a young man’s coming to terms with his sexuality as he comes of age in inner-city Miami. There’s Tarell Alvin McCraney, the playwright whose work the film is based on. There’s the phenomenal ensemble, including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Trevante Rhodes, and André Holland.

And behind them all, there’s Barry Jenkins, the writer-director who has finally followed up his shoestring 2008 drama Medicine for Melancholy with a second effort that affirms good films come to those who wait. It’s Jenkins’s cleverly crafted, three-part script and poetic, wistful filmmaking that is earning Moonlight rave reviews, with the Wall Street Journal hailing it as a “masterpiece,” Entertainment Weekly calling it “one of the most powerful films of the year,” and the Los Angeles Times labeling it “magic.” We recently spoke to Jenkins about his own humble beginnings, his first films, and his future plans:

The “shared biography” of Moonlight
Jenkins, 37, was born and raised in Liberty City, the rough-and-tumble Miami neighborhood where Moonlight unfolds. He calls the movie a “shared biography” with McCraney, whose unproduced work would serve as the film’s basis, and notes similarities between his upbringing and that of the main character Chiron (played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). Like Chiron, Jenkins was a quiet kid who’d eventually turn to football. His mother, like Naomie Harris’s Paula, struggled with drug addiction, so there were other adults in their community (like those played by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae) who would look after him. Then “there are these small in-between moments that are lifted right from my childhood,” Jenkins said, like having to heat water on a gas stove for a bath after their electricity was shut off.

Jenkins enrolled at Florida State University in Tallahassee with plans to become a teacher. But he eventually pivoted into the college’s film school, one deep with talent at the time that included future Maze Runner helmer Wes Ball and It Follows writer-director David Robert Mitchell. “I kind of sucked at filmmaking,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got a kid like Wes who’s remaking Pixar animated shorts…and I literally did not know you needed a light to expose film.” So Jenkins took a year off, taught himself how to make 35 MM prints, subscribed to the influential film journal Sight & Sound, and immersed himself in foreign cinema.

“I saw the possibility inherent in cinema.”
The inspiration for Jenkins’s first film, a post-9/11 short called My Josephine (watch above), came from “this black humor joke going around that being Arab-American was the new black,” he said. Jenkins found a Laundromat owned by a Middle Eastern couple in Tallahassee that advertised free cleanings for American flags. The late-night shift there became the setting for a romance between Aadid (Basel Hamden) and Adela (Saba Shariat). My Josephine played a single film festival in Minneapolis, but it inspired Jenkins. “I saw the possibility inherent in cinema,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Okay, it’s not because I’m black and poor and from a broken home that I couldn’t do this — it’s because I just hadn’t done the work.’”

Jenkins moved to Los Angeles in 2004, where he worked as a director’s assistant for a time before he spent a year-and-a-half traveling across the country by train. He fell in love with a woman in San Francisco, but she broke up with him, and his film career was flagging. “I realized I hadn’t done anything since film school. And also I had this raging broken heart, so I thought I’d combine those things together and make a film,” he said. The result was Medicine for Melancholy, a romance shot with a five-person crew over 15 days for a mere $13,000. The “black mumblecore” project starred former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac (in his feature film debut) and Tracey Heggins (who’d go on to appear in The Twilight Saga) as a couple wandering around San Francisco the day after a one-night-stand. Medicine premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2008 and drew praise from critics like Roger Ebert, who called it a “very assured” debut. “It was as tiny as tiny could get,” Jenkins said. “But it worked, man.”


Finding magic in Moonlight
Medicine earned Jenkins notice in Hollywood, but it would be five years before what would become his sophomore feature, Moonlight, came into his life. A South Florida filmmaking collective called the Borscht Corp discovered McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and reached out to Jenkins to see if he’d consider adapting it. Jenkins wrote the script in 2013, and two years later it was announced the film would be produced by A24, the studio behind last year’s Oscar-winning Room.

Moonlight debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in September before making stops in Toronto, London, New York, and Rome. The praise — not to mention the Oscar speculation — has been near-universal. “Even though I can’t go make a film in Boise, Idaho, I think there’s probably some neighborhood in Boise, Idaho that’s just as distinct as Liberty City is in Miami,” Jenkins said. “I think when people see that someone from a community went home to tell a story about their people, they go, ‘Oh, someone from my community could do the same thing.’ And they begin to see themselves in these characters, despite the fact they don’t look exactly like these characters.”

It’s an achievement that will be discussed for months to come, and of course open all kinds of opportunities for Jenkins, who could very well follow the likes of indie filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) onto the sets of Hollywood tentpoles. “There are stories that I want to make that I’m curious about that mandate a larger scale,” Jenkins said. “I wouldn’t make Medicine for Melancholy for $20 million, but also you wouldn’t make Jurassic World for $15,000…. I’m not afraid of making movies at a larger budget. I think as my imagination grows, hopefully the scale of the films will, too.”

Moonlight is now in select theaters.