Barry Jenkins Slow-Cooks His Masterpiece
The director’s return fractures the very notion of a personal film.
Barry Jenkins hasn’t made a movie in eight years, a fact about which he doesn’t need to be reminded. He has felt the weight of each passing year. Modest, cerebral but funny, described by even his closest friends as “very private” and “guarded,” Jenkins will be 37 in November. He always assumed he would have made more films by this point in his life. There have been moments over the course of the past eight years — desperate stretches of days or months — when he feared he would never make a movie again. He sometimes managed to convince himself he could be happy doing something else: writing for television, directing commercials. But the feeling inevitably passed. And the question kept coming, Where’s the next film, Barry? Each time it was asked — by producers, well-meaning friends, baristas — it stung, and he felt it in his gut, and he thought to himself, Motherfucker. He had to make another movie.
On a Sunday morning in August, Jenkins is brewing coffee in his loft on the 16th floor of a high-rise in Downtown L.A., the room brightly illuminated by the windows he refuses to cover with anything but the sheerest possible fabric, to prevent himself from oversleeping. The floors and most other available surfaces are stacked high with neat piles of DVDs and art magazines and novels. A blue neon sign depicting the cursive word “black” hangs on one wall, opposite a portrait of James Baldwin painted by one of Jenkins’s former co-workers at a Bay Area Banana Republic.
Beside his bed, in a place of prominence, is a poster for his 2008 debut, Medicine for Melancholy, a lyrical and ambiguous film about a one-night-stand starring The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac. Jenkins made the movie on a shoestring budget of $15,000 — a loan from an old film-school friend, who had earned the sum doing digital effects for a Hollywood blockbuster — and had been surprised but gratified to see it embraced by film festival audiences and critics around the world. Jenkins soon found himself championed as an important new voice by the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Ta-Nehisi Coates. A.O. Scott included the film in his end-of-the-year best-of list for the New York Times, alongside Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Almost immediately, Jenkins began to field questions about his follow-up.
“I knew it would be a process,” he tells me now, measuring coffee beans with the careful precision of a research chemist, “but I thought for sure within the next two years I would be on set making my next film.” Having measured the beans — “always by weight, not by size,” he explains — he pauses to grind them, a mechanical roar that makes us both flinch. “And when it didn’t happen,” he continues, “I thought, Shit, there must be something wrong with me.”
There were, of course, other projects. In the aftermath of Medicine’s success, he wrote and developed a manic-sounding epic about “Stevie Wonder and time travel,” involving a mysterious mansion in Harlem and a vintage Moog synthesizer with magical, spacetime-altering properties. “My life was all about Stevie Wonder for like two years,” he says. Jenkins was working on the film with Focus Features, but it never panned out. For this, he blames only himself. “I think I just didn’t write a good enough script,” he says. “And after that didn’t work, I just needed to make a living.”
He worked as a carpenter. He took meetings. He wrote a screenplay adaptation, on assignment, of Bill Clegg’s memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man. He co-founded a small studio, Strike Anywhere, specializing in commercials and “branded content” for companies like Facebook and Bloomingdale’s. He made short films on the side — some of them brilliant, like 2011’s Remigration, a sci-fi take on gentrification. He finally took a job as a staff writer on the second season of HBO’s The Leftovers. “I didn’t get to do much,“ he says of the latter experience, though he might as well be talking about the last several years. He was treading water.
The coffee, after an impressively arduous series of technical maneuvers, is finished, and Jenkins passes me a cup before slumping down into an orange chair in the center of the room. He is slim and bald and wears glasses with thick, translucent frames. Today he is exhausted and profoundly jet-lagged, coming off a 20-hour travel nightmare exacerbated by an airline workers’ strike in Portugal, where he’s been doing research for a future project. He rubs his eyes. “I’ve been living in this kind of ‘holy shit’ state of mind for months,” he says. “And I only have four more days to live there.” In four days, he will begin traveling to festivals to present his new film, Moonlight, the culmination of all the preceding years of work, doubt, and self-examination.
The film, which stars Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monáe, and will be released in theaters October 21, arrives at a troubled moment for the American film business. Earlier this year, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its latest slate of Oscar nominations, it did not go unnoticed that the selection included only white actors — for the second year in a row. There was widespread public outcry, a collective expression of disappointment in the industry that soon became associated with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. As another year’s awards season gradually sparks to life, many feel that a response, in the form of prestige films with dimensional and fully-realized non-white characters (by non-white filmmakers), is required.
Witness the early reception of Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, which, before it became complicated by Parker’s past sexual assault allegations, was hailed by various outlets as a “solution” and a “remedy” to the controversy (“Can this film break [the] #OscarsSoWhite curse?” asked one MSNBC.com headline, absurdly). Entertainment Weekly speculated that the Oscars outrage “could spur a black film boom.”
Moonlight became a part of this conversation almost immediately, in January, while it was still in post-production. But in Jenkins’s view, the ostensible black film boom was going to happen either way. “A lot of the things I read about diversity in film oversimplify this stuff,” he says. He cites the enormous critical and commercial success of his friends Ava DuVernay (Selma) and Ryan Coogler (Creed) and says, “I defy anyone to come up with any version of their stories that isn’t simply derived from their will to create.”
Anyone looking to Moonlight for the easy affirmation of most Oscars fare will, for that matter, be confounded. It’s a dreamlike film (with an appropriately chopped-and-screwed soundtrack), one that gives new and ominous meaning to Lenny Bruce’s famous remark that Miami is “where neon goes to die.” It sometimes unfolds like an episode of The Wire as reimagined by the French filmmaker Claire Denis, to borrow two of Jenkin’s most beloved cinematic touchstones.
Described to me by Jenkins half-jokingly but aptly as a “hood-arthouse coming-of-age LGBT drama,” Moonlight is based on an unpublished work, titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by the MacArthur Genius Grant-winning playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who grew up a few blocks away from Jenkins in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, where the movie is set. The film tells the story of a single character, Chiron — poor, black, gay, raised in Miami by a mother struggling with a crack addiction — at three different stages of his life, delineated in three sharply distinct chapters (in each, Chiron is portrayed by a different actor).
Though the film hasn’t been screened yet for the general public when we meet, there have been a handful of showings for select friends and critics, and the early response has been overwhelmingly positive. “This is the first time I’ve seen a movie like this,” the New York Times critic Wesley Morris said on a recent episode of the Bill Simmons Podcast, calling the film “incredible” as well as “astonishingly beautiful and inspired.” On Twitter, Ta-Nehisi Coates called it the “best film I’ve seen in a long time” and the “best take on black masculinity....ever.” More glowing reviews would follow the film’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival a week after Jenkins and I meet.
For now, Jenkins has been fastidiously avoiding any feedback. “It’s exciting and also maddening because I still don’t know what anybody thinks of the film.” He stands and begins to pace the room restlessly, stopping in front of a pair of Moonlight posters hanging in the corner by a small balcony overlooking the city. “Four more days,” he repeats under his breath.
Haunting and meditative, the film doesn’t build to a climax or a simply articulated conclusion. Instead, its energy circulates and vacillates between different themes and images — the beach, the breeze, and the cracked, pastel color palette of the urban South. As a character, Chiron is a cipher; the three actors playing him share a doomed intensity. Jenkins has an eye for people who live on the margins of their cities, and Chiron’s marginality is existential. His alienation manifests itself as a kind of hardness and hypervigilance, a complex of defenses that he builds up into a wall around himself. Over the course of the three chapters, he retracts, a process we come to understand as both tragic and inevitable. The film’s power is directly related to its empathy.
“Barry has this ability to capture black folks in their ordinariness, without making statements or declarations.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates
Janelle Monáe says she cried twice while reading the script. “When I thought about Chiron,” she says, “I saw this young black boy looking for guidance, growing up in the ghetto surrounded by drug addicts and drug dealers, and I could see my little cousins, my nephew, and so many other black men from my community. I saw myself in Theresa” — Monáe’s character, who serves as a substitute mother-figure for Chiron — “and have been in several situations like her, where a loved one who was going through the discovery of their sexual identity just needed me to listen.”
The film’s insistence on nuance is what Ta-Nehisi Coates admires most about it. “Barry has this ability to capture black folks in their ordinariness, without making statements or declarations,” Coates tells me. “So often art about blackness or LGBT issues engages in this debate about whether we’re human or not — and Barry just steps right past that. He’s saying it’s not an argument worth having. He tells the viewer you have to accept this. You have to accept that they’re human.”
For Jenkins, this was a crucial part of the film’s project. “I want to create productive images, not necessarily positive images,” he says. “Overt positivity can sometimes deflect attention away from the problem, or create myths that aren’t helpful. The way I described it to the actors was, ‘Everything in this movie is a gray area. The characters are gray, the situations are gray.’ There’s some very dark shit in this movie, but you have to acknowledge the ugliness. You just have to.”
Despite the fact that Jenkins and McCraney attended the same elementary and middle schools, they didn’t know each other until a mutual friend in Miami passed along a copy of McCraney’s play a few years ago, knowing Jenkins would be interested. When he read it, he thought its tripartite structure offered “a new way of looking at the dynamics of a relationship, of fate and possibility.” He’d wanted to make a film in three parts since seeing the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 2005 romantic saga Three Times — though this only goes so far in explaining his connection to the material. Jenkins himself is straight, and he approached Chiron’s struggle with his sexuality “from the limited standpoint of an ally.” But in almost every other respect, he says, the story could be his own.
Like the protagonist of Moonlight, Jenkins grew up poor and emotionally dislocated in the housing projects of Liberty City. The youngest by a decade of three siblings, all of whom had different fathers they didn’t know, he was born in 1979 to a mother who was, by the time he turned 3, addicted to crack. The man he understood to be his own father, his namesake, left his mother when she was pregnant with Jenkins because he believed himself not to be the biological father. “The man passed away when I was 12, taking to his grave the knowledge I was not his son,” Jenkins once wrote in a blog post about his childhood. “In the few times his eyes met mine, I never saw anything in them but anger and hurt.”
Jenkins was taken in as a toddler by an older woman named Minerva, who had also looked after his mother when she was 15 and first pregnant. He spent much of his childhood in Minerva’s care, living in a two-bedroom apartment filled beyond capacity with eight tenants. He describes an adolescence spent largely in his own head. “In those apartment complexes there’s all this open space and grass and big skies,” he says. “Miami is the bastard stepchild of the whole country. It’s so far away from everything, the rules don’t apply there. You’re sort of cast adrift.” Wandering the neighborhood, he would often cross paths with his mother. “I wasn’t sure where I fit in, but I didn’t really care to fit in,” he says.
He didn’t set out to make an autobiographical film, he insists. But the overlap between his and McCraney’s upbringings made it unavoidable. Writing the Moonlight screenplay while holed up in Brussels three years ago, having polled his friends to find “the most boring city in Europe during the summer,” Jenkins felt he had a breakthrough when he began inserting certain minor details from his own memory into the fabric of the film. So, for instance, we see Chiron boiling water on the stove for his baths, like Jenkins himself did as a child. A Skype interview from his time in Brussels survives on YouTube with barely over 200 views. “Miami hasn’t factored into my work up until this point,” Jenkins tells the interviewer, with the intentional vagueness of the artist afraid of cursing his work in progress. “There’s a script I’m working on now that’s set there.”
The high school in Moonlight is, even in McCraney’s play, named for the high school Jenkins attended, Miami Northwestern. Other notable alumni include Trina and Trick Daddy and a long roster of successful athletes, a tradition to which Jenkins at one point hoped to belong. “There were three running backs on my high school football team,” he tells me. “Two made it to the NFL, the other one is talking to you.” His relationships with the football coaches there were formative to him, the only emotional models he had for fatherhood and the key to his understanding of Moonlight’s first chapter, in which the protagonist is mentored by a local drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, best known as the calculating Remy Danton on House of Cards).
“He’s never seen a relationship that works,” Jenkins says of Chiron, noting that his own early relationships were sabotaged by the same difficulty. The result is that every character in Moonlight is broken in some fundamental way, every relationship fragile or tainted by miscommunication or misunderstanding. This includes the relationship between Chiron and the city of Miami itself, a place Jenkins says he hasn’t felt “emotionally comfortable” reckoning with in the context of a feature film before. “People don’t ever think I’m from Miami,” he adds. “But I will say that when I came back from filming, there were people here who thought I sounded different.” Being back in his old neighborhood had necessitated a kind of code-switching, he explains, and lately he has found it difficult to tell which “code” is the more natural one. Is he speaking in his own voice, or an adopted one?
“Do you think that’s a condition of blending your own story with someone else’s?” I ask him.
“I think it’s a condition of being black in America,” he says.
Later that night, we drive east to the El Sereno home of Moonlight’s producer, Adele Romanski, and cinematographer, James Laxton, who are married and have been close friends with Jenkins since they all attended film school together at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Studying film in college was an afterthought for Jenkins. He noticed a sign for the program while on his way to see a football game and thought he’d give it a shot. “When you come from the place I come from,” he says, “the idea of having a career in anything doesn’t really occur to you.”
Laxton is away shooting a commercial tonight, but Romanski greets us at the front door and holds back her two dogs, Stella and Banana, just long enough for us to squeeze inside. (“Remember the pit bulls,” Jenkins has warned me. “Don’t show any fear.”) In the living room, Jenkins is instantly tackled by Stella as Romanski peppers him with questions about his trip.
“How was Portugal?” she asks.
“Exhausting,” he says.
“Did you get any rest at all?”
“Did you have any fun?”
“Have you seen your schedule?”
His face falls. He has seen his schedule, which involves approximately 30 flights over the next six weeks.
It was Romanski who, in 2013, instigated a series of weekly Gchat conversations with Jenkins about what his next film would be. “People were lamenting the absence of his sophomore movie,” she says. “It got to the point where I was getting asked about it at parties, just by association.” Romanski had long since resolved to work with filmmakers she “knows and loves and trusts,” and Jenkins had been one of the stars of the F.S.U. program, which also included Wes Ball (The Maze Runner) and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows).
Romanski rifles through her bag and produces a stack of printed-out email conversations between the two of them, which she keeps around “kind of in a superstitious way.” She quietly reads from a list of a dozen ideas he’d proposed and laughs about one of them, which she says Jenkins rejected for “being too personal.” Jenkins laughs at this, too. “I feel like the universe pulled one over on you,” she says. “You thought you were adapting someone else’s story—”
“And there’s so much of me in there,” he finishes.
“It crept up on you,” she says.
“There’s some very dark shit in this movie, but you have to acknowledge the ugliness. You just have to.”
In the summer of 2013, Jenkins hosted a Q&A with the director Steve McQueen for the world premiere of 12 Years a Slave at Telluride. Afterward, he met the proprietors of Plan B Entertainment, the production company founded by Brad Pitt, which produced McQueen’s film. They asked Jenkins what he was working on, and he told them about the script he’d just finished in Brussels. It took a little while, he says, but Plan B read it and signed on as co-producers. They also enlisted another company, A24, which had previously only handled distribution (Spring Breakers, Ex Machina), but which agreed to make Moonlight the first film it produced and financed as well.
This, finally, was the greenlight Jenkins had been working toward. He and Romanski flew to Miami to scout locations. Wyatt Cenac, who starred in Medicine for Melancholy, happened to be in the city during this pre-production period, and remembers spending long hours discussing the new project and Jenkins’s memories of the city. “Movies haven’t really been something I’ve enjoyed making, in part because none have ever been as enjoyable as [Medicine] was,” Cenac tells me. “It seems like a good director is one who can recognize what they have in front of them and use those specific materials to make something good. Taking what he needs and reshaping it into something we can use.”
Accordingly, Jenkins decided to shoot, whenever possible, in places he’d frequented himself growing up, like Liberty Square, nicknamed the Poke ‘n’ Beans, which he calls “the most notorious housing project in Miami.” He had relatives who’d lived here — the only reason its residents had permitted them to film undisturbed. “People were skeptical in the old neighborhood,” Jenkins says. “‘You’re who? You lived where?’ But the more they saw us, they realized we weren’t going anywhere.” By the end, he says, “people were just proud to see there was a movie made in the Poke ‘n’ Beans, produced by Brad Pitt.” Liberty Square is scheduled to be razed and rebuilt in coming months, and in this sense, Moonlight has a kind of documentary value as well: it’s a portrait of Miami as Jenkins remembers it, a personal record of a place on the verge of disappearing.
I ask Jenkins what he learned in the course of making Moonlight, and he replies, “That nothing is impossible.” We’re out on the back porch now, drinking kombucha and watching the pit bulls chase bees and roll around in the grass. The sun is going down, and Jenkins is sitting under an orange tree. “If Barry Jenkins made another movie,” he says, “then nothing is impossible.” Will we have to wait another eight years for his third? Jenkins thinks this is unlikely. He has three finished scripts and has already made headway on the project set in Portugal, which he declines to discuss in any detail, smiling as he does so.
He returns to the idea, clearly troubling to him, that he only has four days left before the film is unveiled publicly. “Something ends after that,” he says. “Right now the movie isn’t a symbol of anything or beholden to anyone. It belongs to us and our experience making it. We did the best we could, you know? Once people see it, though, they’ll take ownership of it.” He considers this for a moment. “And after that,” he says, “everybody’s just gonna be asking about the next thing.”