Barry Jenkins on Moonlight, the Oscars and Trump’s America

The director of the year’s most acclaimed film on his journey from the projects to Hollywood
"Making films gave me a voice. Legitimately saved me"

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On September 2 2016, Barry Jenkins left his apartment in Downtown Los Angeles with a suitcase. A compact man in thick-framed retro glasses, he attracted no attention in a city that keeps an eye out for people on the rise. He was simply another LA creative in transit, the co-founder of a successful video company making branded content for clients including Facebook and Google.

By that evening, Jenkins was in Telluride, the Colorado ski resort that doubles as the venue of a busy film festival. There, he attended the first public screening of Moonlight, a low-budget film he had directed the previous year. 

The episodic story of a boy, Chiron, growing up gay, poor and black in Miami, its closing credits saw the audience stand as one for an ovation. Several people were sobbing. 

The first reviews were ecstatic. They stayed that way. In the five months since Jenkins left for Telluride, essentially unknown, critics have routinely called Moonlight a masterpiece, and him a virtuoso. Other audiences have sobbed, telling him his film means more to them than a film ever has. 

Last month, it earned eight Oscar nominations, among them best picture. Two went to Jenkins specifically, for director and adapted screenplay.

On a grey London morning, we are in a discreetly plush hotel suite above the building sites of Soho. Jenkins recently turned 37, though he looks younger. Amiably laid-back and wearing a bright orange beanie hat on account of a head cold, he has the sense of someone not yet quite used to being peered at by the world. 

The sudden scrutiny has at least taught him which subjects are likely to come up — the eight-year gap between Moonlight and his only other film, Medicine for Melancholy; the traces of his life now up on screen. Like Chiron, Jenkins grew up poor and black in 1980s Miami. Like him, he was the son of a mother addicted to crack. These things he is happy to discuss.

© Pani Paul

The Oscars, however, tighten his smile. “I’m process orientated,” he says. “Awards by their nature are results orientated.” Jenkins speaks with speedy efficiency. Neither he nor his film go big on earnest monologues. 

The way Moonlight gazes at its characters in widescreen is how it tells us they matter. “People either talk about not seeing characters like this before,” he says, “or the film looking like [something] they’ve never seen before. But those things are the flipside of each other.”

It was, to start with, a play: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a MacArthur Fellowship-winning playwright. Jenkins hadn’t met McCraney when a mutual friend sent him the unpublished work, a fact that might have come from fiction. Both men grew up not just in Miami but in the same notorious housing project of Liberty Square where the story is set. There is only a year between them in age and, as boys, their mothers fell prey to the same addiction. 

“I believe 1,000 per cent our moms got high in the same den,” Jenkins says. But while Jenkins’ mother survived crack, McCraney’s died. And while McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight.

Naomie Harris as Paula in 'Moonlight'

The precise connection between Moonlight and Jenkins’ own life still seems changeable. “The film,” he says when we first sit down, “is more about Tarell McCraney than Barry Jenkins.” 

Within a few minutes, though, he renegotiates this split. “The autobiography is shared. There were times I would phone Tarell and ask him, ‘Wait, did this happen to you or me?’” Later, he tries again. Maybe the best way to put it, he says, is how his friend did when first sending him the play. “They said Moonlight wasn’t about me, but it was about me. And when I read it, it was that exactly. It wasn’t about me. And it was way, way about me.”

***

Jenkins was born in 1979, his childhood spent in the unforgiving north Miami quarter of Liberty City. Before his birth, his father Barry Moore Fickling and mother Alcene Jenkins had been together 10 years. But when his son was born, Fickling believed he was another man’s child. The relationship collapsed. By 1982, Alcene was lost to America’s crack epidemic.

Afterwards, Jenkins mostly lived with his grandmother in a small apartment crowded with people, but not always with hot water. Occasionally, he ran into Alcene on the street, unravelling. Liberty Square was deep in poverty and violence. When he was 11, a hip-hop single called “Yo’ Mama’s On Crack Rock” swept Miami with a playground sing-song chorus. 

In London, a quarter of a century later, he can still remember it. “These kids would sing, ‘Yo’ mama’s on crack rock’. Then this one kid said back, ‘Not my mama.’ I knew that kid was me. And I was ashamed. Always ashamed. Motherless, for a time.”

Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron in 'Moonlight'

In Moonlight, Chiron withdraws into silence. Yet McCraney, Jenkins says, was a talkative child. The boy on screen, he admits, is closer to him. “I kept to myself. Being around people meant being messed with, so I chose not to be. I’d go to a corner, just observe, be quiet.”

Small-framed but robust, he played American football, and his grades in school were good enough to win a scholarship to Florida State University in Tallahassee. But he still felt disconnected. Due to a quirk in funding, the university had a film school — the FSU College of Motion Picture Arts — built into its football stadium. Noticing a sign in a hallway, he changed his major on no more than a whim. 

He quickly loved the mash of cultures. “I’d never had a white friend before,” he says. But, starting from scratch, he felt he didn’t belong among “talented kids who grew up with cameras”. His own work felt depressingly crude. “And it posed a question, which was: is this because I’m black and poor and my mom was a crackhead and so I have no talent? Or because I just don’t know how to do this yet?”

When Jenkins talks about his younger self, he tends to strip his identity down to the stark facts of race, economics and his mother’s drug use. “It was how I saw myself,” he says. “You see how the world sees you and you accept it.” So when did he start to see himself differently? “Making films. It gave me a voice. Legitimately saved me.”

***

The film school library offered a crash course in world cinema. Rather than Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, Jenkins fell for the French new wave and Wong Kar-Wai, the Hong Kong director of films such as Happy Together and Chungking Express. What did a kid from Liberty Square see in them? “Outsiderness. Otherness. I realised it was how I saw myself.”

Barry Jenkins in London last month © Pani Paul

The mood seeped into his first short, My Josephine, made in the wake of 9/11 about an Arab-American launderette. It was out-of-nowhere brilliant, instinctively cosmopolitan. “In Arabic, French and English. And it worked.” Jenkins’ eyes widen. “Before I’d always felt not good enough. Now I had this thing.

“Then I moved to LA and blah blah blah,” he smiles. He worked as an assistant at Oprah Winfrey’s production company Harpo, glimpsed the mechanics of Hollywood, sent money back to his mother, by now recovering from addiction. But it wasn’t what he wanted. 

“Your readers will hate this, but I cashed in my 401(k) [retirement savings plan] and quit.” He used the few thousand dollars to travel the US, fell in love with a woman in San Francisco, and settled there. “Then she broke my heart.”

Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac in Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

Pain at least inspired him. With $13,000 borrowed from an old film-school friend, Jenkins made a full-length movie, Medicine for Melancholy. Following a couple around San Francisco the day after a one-night stand, it was a hit in the way of micro-budget indie movies. There was praise from Steven Soderbergh and Ta-Nehisi Coates, just enough profit to repay his debts. 

The film failed to make the slightest dent in the mainstream but he had made a fine movie. There were many meetings. To those in the know, it was obvious Jenkins was about to have a dazzling future. 

This was 2008. Moving back to LA, he planned a phantasmagorical biopic of Stevie Wonder. In 2010, it fell apart. To make ends meet, he took assignments writing more films that were never made. Sometimes, he did carpentry. Years passed.

When Jenkins finally directed again, it was as the co-founder of a production company making bespoke videos for high-end clients, marking events such as the 10th anniversary of Facebook. It was a sturdier life than the one he foresaw in Liberty Square. “Paying the bills,” he says, “felt like its own achievement.”

Cenac playing guitar in the film

If people asked, he would tell them he wanted to make another movie, one day. When he thought of Miami, which he didn’t much, it all seemed a long time ago.

I wonder aloud how Jenkins felt when he read In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue with its portrait of a Liberty Square childhood. Did he worry that being straight meant he wasn’t the right person for it? “Of course. And at the same time” — he mimes his heart hammering in his chest – “I thought, ‘If I’m responding this way and I still turn away, then I’m a coward.’”

In August 2013, Jenkins took a straw poll among friends as to the most boring European city in summer. “Multiple people said Brussels.” He arrived in Belgium and rented an anonymous flat. Adapting McCraney’s writing into a screenplay, he found himself flavouring it with his own experience, slivers of dialogue, glancing memories.

In September 2015, with a $5m budget from Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, he returned to Liberty Square for the first time in years. It hadn’t much changed, he says. But he had. At least he thought he had. He wasn’t alone. “At first the neighbourhood resisted me. They were like, ‘You’re from here? Nah, you’re not from here.’”

To move between worlds as Jenkins has — inner-city Miami, professional LA, international film — has meant “code-switching”, adjusting both speech and manner. When I ask if he hopes the success of Moonlight will inspire kids from backgrounds like his, he sighs. The question is complicated. 

“This is a tough road. Where I’m from, nobody talks like you and me are talking now. For a kid from the neighbourhood I grew up in to get into this room, there were all these roadblocks, even after I picked up a camera.” 

Alex Hibbert with Mahershala Ali in 'Moonlight'

Every day making Moonlight featured a blast of déjà vu. With three inexperienced actors playing Chiron — the youngest, Alex Hibbert, just 11 — the shoot was always a test. The two biggest names in the cast, Mahershala Ali and English actor Naomie Harris, each now have Oscar nominations too. Harris, playing Chiron’s mother Paula, had just three days on set, and slotted them in while in the US promoting her role in the Bond movie Spectre.

In some scenes her character is sorrowful. In others, she brings home men, vanishing in a shroud of crack smoke. At one point she screams with rage at the mere sight of her son. Watching Harris left Jenkins reeling. “All I could think was, ‘What the f**k is happening?” On set, he was proudly level-headed. “But when I see this silent kid and this skilled actress, who is now a horrific personification of my very worst memories of my mom, it’s challenging.”

Eventually, they reached the point in the script where Paula wheedles money for drugs from Chiron. The scene was cruel but, despite a ticking clock, Jenkins kept demanding more takes. “It wasn’t going far enough.” Finally, he asked Harris to deliver her lines to camera. “I needed the audience to see how it was. I needed that.” Jenkins stood behind the lens as Harris gazed into it. “I’m your momma, ain’t I?” she said.

He called “Cut”. Later, he learnt about the use of role play in gestalt therapy. “That was what it was without me knowing it,” he says. “Maybe it worked anyway. Before, I never discussed this stuff with anyone. Now I’ve presented it to total strangers.”

Mostly, Jenkins brings his answers to a neat conclusion, as if he knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it. Now, he stops and restarts. “I went back to Miami hiding behind Tarell. And I’d been wilfully ignoring that person I was. I thought he was buried and he wasn’t.” He pauses again. “What I thought was resolved was unresolved.”

Will he ever resolve it? “Bro, I’m still here with you, reliving it. But maybe, when everything with this film is done . . . ” The way he says it, that idea seems a little far-fetched.

The suggestion Moonlight was made to win Oscars makes Jenkins cackle. “You’ve seen it, right?” The long jostle of awards season, he says, “makes me feel like a plane in turbulence”.

It hasn’t helped that the film is always mentioned in relation to last year’s furore about the whiteness of Oscar nominations. “Every journalist wants me to fix that,” he smiles wearily. The real problem, he says, is systemic. 

“If you’re a studio executive and you only hire white male directors, that is a political choice.” He falls back into the sofa. “This is by far my least enjoyable thing to talk about.”

The real secret of the film, he says, was not taking his eyes off the story. “Until Moonlight I had never seen one black man cook for another on screen. But I wanted the characters to be free of ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘never before’. We were ascribed those things. They weren’t the point.”

He sees all too well the irony of his rise coming at what to many feels like end times in America. I ask which event had more personal significance, the release of Moonlight or the presidential election? The answer is immediate. “Oh, the election.” 

Jenkins and actor Naomie Harris discussing the film in LA

The night after the result, Jenkins went to an outdoor screening of his film at an LA art space called The Underground Museum. He found a crowd of 300 in what is basically a large backyard. 

“I took eight years between films, and in another life it could have been nine. But the movie is here now, and seems to mean things it didn’t before November 8th. Because now there is an idea that one America is acceptable, and another will be choked. And people want a response that says, ‘No — other Americas are valid.’”

It worries Jenkins that success — “I fly business class now, with white guys in suits” — will unhook him from what inspires him. In LA, he tries to walk everywhere, overhearing conversations, people-watching. Just talking about it animates him. He leans forward conspiratorially. “In Brussels, I hardly spoke. Just observed. I loved it. A month alone would make me so happy.” He shakes his head. “Not good for my dating prospects.”

Our time is nearly up, and we talk about how poverty leaves little energy for creativity. “But if you’re alone as a kid,” he says, “then rich or poor, you have all this time to think.” He recalls a memory that doesn’t feature in Moonlight. He was seven, and his grandmother took him on a weekend fishing trip from Miami to the Everglades.

“Back in school my teacher asked us what we did at the weekend. And I told her, and she said, ‘OK, I want you to write that down. Then you’re going to sit in front of the class and read the story.’” So he told the other kids about his journey to the swamp edge of America. 

“Her point was that none of them ever, ever got outside the projects. So she wanted me to help them see it. Because these things I had seen had value, and should be shared.”

‘Moonlight’ goes on general release in the UK on February 17; Danny Leigh is an FT film critic

Portraits by Pani Paul, with grooming by Mira H. using MAC. Additional photography: Alamy and Getty Images. 

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