Barry Jenkins: ‘Being poor and black in Miami was all I knew’
The 'If Beale Street Could Talk' director on the Oscars mix-up and what's next
Barry Jenkins: “I must not forget that the greatest asset I have in this new world is my personal experience.” Photograph: Kayla Reefer/New York Times
There should be an air of tension in the room, but Barry Jenkins seems unconcerned by any looming news. He is polite in a way that only Americans can manage. He betrays no hint of distraction as he talks me through his unlikely career.
Yet we are about 40 minutes away from the announcement of the Oscar nominations. Having received triumphant reviews over the last few weeks, Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, the hypnotic adaptation of a James Baldwin novel, seems poised for multiple nods. I assume he’ll be scurrying to a computer immediately after the interview ends.
“I don’t watch,” he says. “Someone else watches and she passes me a note. That’s what I did last time. I don’t want to expend that energy.”
I wonder if he allows himself expectations. Pundits are predicting Beale Street to score in music and best adapted screenplay. Best director and picture also seem like good bets.
We think of Faye Dunaway announcing La La Land as the winner and Jordan Horowitz, that film’s producer, having to correct the humiliating mistake.
“No. But you can’t help but hear,” he says. “If you live in the world during the season you hear things. I have a pretty good idea how that’s going to go. That’s the reality.”
Barry Jenkins will always have a special relationship with the Academy Awards. The members ensured that when they voted Moonlight, his gorgeous second feature, to the best picture statuette in 2017. Its victory was the greatest upset in that category for decades (possibly ever). A small, eccentric film from an African-American director – barely on the map at the start of awards season – had, by winning, helped confirm that the Academy’s demographics were opening up. Yet that’s not what we remember first. We think of Faye Dunaway announcing La La Land as the winner and Jordan Horowitz, that film’s producer, having to correct the humiliating mistake.
“The farther I have got away from it the better I have got about it,” Jenkins says. “It was confusing. It was messy. But I make films. Sometimes I’ll give a bad direction to an actor and it will waste a take. The cinematographer will be upset. In this case somebody gave a guy the wrong envelope. Mistakes happen.”
A neat fellow with a shaved head, good spectacles and a preppy line in daywear, Jenkins comes across as the avatar of quiet reason throughout. There’s no anger. But one can detect a note of disappointment. A spontaneous circus swallowed his moment of triumph.
“This body voted for the guy who nobody knows who made a film about a guy from the projects who’s struggling with his sexuality,” he says. “They voted for that film as best film. That gets completely lost in the notion of this mistake. It’s a very knotty thing. But I can remember the feeling of winning for adapted screenplay – just hearing the noise in that room. Winning best picture should have been that times ten. And it just wasn’t.”
Made for around $1.5 million (2019 nominee Black Panther cost over $200 million), Moonlight tells the story of an African-American man growing up gay in the meaner streets of Miami. The most famous actor in the film was Naomie Harris. Jenkins’s first film, Medicine for Melancholy, was well reviewed back in 2008, but it was barely seen outside a few urban art-houses. Jenkins can’t have seen the Moonlight triumph coming.
“I would have been astonished if a quarter of what happened had happened,” he says. “I made that film without any expectations. Everything I had learned about my work had taught me that it would only live within a niche of a niche of a niche. That was me putting limitations on the audience. Moonlight taught me not to do that. Just do the work and put it into the world.”
Not yet 40, Barry has already lived a remarkable life. Born into a largely African-American corner of Miami, he grew up in circumstances that he admits were “difficult”. Jenkins’s mother was an addict and he lived with a surrogate parent in a crowded two-bedroom apartment. He acknowledges that – though he is not gay – the protagonist’s story in Moonlight is close to his own.
“If you just erase ‘Barry Jenkins’ and just make me a stat this is all very unlikely,” he says, gesturing to the picture window behind him. “The odds of me sitting in the fifth floor of the Soho Hotel and talking to you are quite slim.”
Barry was a decent football player and somehow managed to make his way to Florida State University, where he took a degree in fine art. He was originally planning to become a teacher, but got directed elsewhere after signing up for a course on film.
“Being poor and black in Miami was all I knew,” he says. “Kids are resilient beings. It wasn’t that my life wasn’t hard. It was just that it wasn’t until I got to college that I realised it. I looked at the other kids and thought they came from luxury. But that wasn’t it. They just had normal everyday middle-American lives.”
I am an immigrant. I am in foreign shores. Let me find out how to navigate it
He says “poor and black”. The two things are hard to disentangle, but I wonder which more conspicuously set him apart from his contemporaries.
“Yes, that was what was strange. I never thought to disconnect the two,” he says. “I then realised I needed to meet more people. Not every black person is from the world I am from. I was also realising that white kids didn’t all have the same experiences. I needed to have as many experiences as possible. I knew my voice was going to distinguish me.”
He credits this realisation with sending him towards foreign-language cinema and the appreciation of other cultural artefacts outside his everyday experience. But he remained aware of the dangers of “assimilation”. He was determined not to undervalue his own early experiences.
I note tentatively that this echoes a common US experience: the second-generation immigrant who worries about abandoning his parents’ culture.
“In a certain way that is how I felt going to film school and then going to Hollywood,” he agrees. “I am an immigrant. I am in foreign shores. Let me find out how to navigate it. But I must not forget that the greatest asset I have in this new world is my personal experience.”
It is now over a decade since he cobbled together his first low-budget feature. He did all the things a struggling artist has to do in the quiet periods. He worked as a carpenter. He worked in a department store. But he never ceased striving to make it in this foreign territory. The success of Moonlight might have made Hollywood just that little bit more open to African-American talent. Would a young Barry now feel quite so much like an immigrant?
“Oh, no, no. Absolutely not,” he says. “There are just so many examples: myself, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Dee Rees, Jordan Peele, Boots Riley and, of course, Spike Lee. One of the things that kept me going was I could look to my peers. I’d think: I am going to keep going because I want to give, say, Ryan something to inspire him as he has inspired me.”
If Beale Street Could Talk does more than confirm the promise of Moonlight. Shot in breathtakingly lovely colours that recall the work of Jacques Demy, swelling with a complementary score by Nicholas Britell, the picture follows an African-American couple – played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James –in 1960s New York as they struggle against racism and everyday-cruelty. All the performances are entrancing. The editing is dreamy. It feels as if we already know what a Barry Jenkins picture looks like and this is another irresistible addition to the oeuvre. He sees the story as being worked out through the memories of his female protagonist.
“Once you understand that that is the aesthetic contract then the stylisation becomes more pliable,” he says. “When we think of story we imagine a plot: A leads to B leads to C. But memory isn’t like that. Once we realised we were viewing this through her memories we thought: let’s have some fun with it. Cinema is an experience -- so long as you can create that aesthetic contract with the audience.”
Barry is enjoying the momentum. He is now preparing a TV series of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad for Amazon. After that he’ll need to “figure out what’s next”.
In the short term there are the Oscar nomintions. If Beale Street Could Talk scored three: best adapted screenplay, best original score and best supporting actress. It deserved to do much better.
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1. Moonlight beats La La Land (2017)
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