Biography of Barry Jenkins

Having grown up in the same Miami neighborhood as the protagonist of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Barry Jenkins was already familiar with the world of the play when it was emailed to him by a mutual friend ("From Bittersweet Childhoods"). At the time, Jenkins was struggling to find a new project, having released his first feature film, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), to largely positive reviews.

Although Jenkins experimented with several projects, including a Stevie Wonder time travel script, after Medicine for Melancholy, he found himself unable to put any new projects in motion, and began losing heart ("Where's the Next Film, Barry?"). Even the production company, Pastel Pictures, that Jenkins kickstarted during this time, wasn't helping him to get a film of his off the ground.

That is, until a former classmate of his, Adele Romanski, stepped in, stopping short of forcing Jenkins to make another movie. The pair had studied film together at Florida State University, where Romanski had noticed the freshness of Jenkins' work. According to her, whereas other students there used their time in film school as a safe space to make bad work, Jenkins was experimenting with complex and interesting subjects, such as an early short film of his in which Arab immigrants and owners of a laundromat washed American flags for free. "Barry was the kid who was consistently making something beyond his peer group," said Romanski. "What 21-year-old from Florida is making a movie in Arabic?"

As Romanski and Jenkins began a ritual of video chatting about possible projects twice a month, Jenkins began to bring up a play he had been sent by a friend. It was, of course, McCraney's play, which would become Moonlight. Instantly, Jenkins recognized parts of himself in the character of Chiron. Both boys grew up in Liberty City, Miami during the 1980s crack epidemic there and were raised by a single mother who succumbed to addiction at a young age (Jenkins was three when his mother began using). Jenkins' father died when Jenkins was 12 and went to his grave believing that young Barry wasn't his child. Awash in complex feelings towards both parents, Jenkins spent a good deal of his childhood living in the care of an older woman who had also helped raise his mother. On walks through the neighborhood, Jenkins would sometimes bump into his mother.

Once Romanski had convinced Jenkins to pursue this script, Jenkins flew to Brussels to isolate himself in order to finish up the screenplay. In doing so, he found himself pouring more details from his childhood in Miami into his work than he ever had before. After filming started, Jenkins has said, he felt himself code switching when he interacted with acquaintances in the neighborhood where he grew up. On this code switching, Jenkins has said, “I think it’s a condition of being black in America" ("Where's the Next Film, Barry?").

At times, Jenkins even had to be reminded of the realities of the world in which he grew up; once, a local reminded Jenkins that no one in the film's world would use their legal names. "They were helping me write...It was about them taking possession of the piece" ("To give birth to 'Moonlight'").

Before Moonlight premiered at Telluride Film Festival in the fall of 2016, Jenkins actively sought to avoid feedback, remaining in suspense about whether audiences would respond to the film or not. Once it premiered, however, it became clear that Jenkins had a hit on his hands ("Where's the Next Film, Barry?"). Once the film was released later that year in November, the resounding critical consensus was that the film, along with Jenkins' cast and crew, had a future at the Oscars. In February 2017, Moonlight, which was nominated for eight different awards that year, clinched the award for Best Picture following a historic mishap wherein Warren Beatty mistakenly announced that Damien Chazelle's La La Land had won instead. "Even in my dreams, this could not be true," Jenkins said into the microphone following the announcement ("'There's a Mistake'"). Moonlight was also nominated for seven other Academy Awards, winning Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali in addition to Best Picture.

Finding himself interrogated once again about upcoming projects, Jenkins can no longer afford to take a break between films. In between festival screenings of the film, Jenkins directed an episode of the Netflix show “Dear White People.” Jenkins' next film will be an adaptation of James Baldwin's novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, a love story set in 1970s Harlem. This will mark the first joint venture between Jenkins' production company, Pastel Pictures, and film production giant Annapurna Pictures ("'Moonlight' Director Barry Jenkins to Adapt James Baldwin Novel").

Study Guides on Works by Barry Jenkins

Directed by relative newcomer Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is a film adapted from Terell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Production on the film, financed by A24, PASTEL, and Plan B, began in late 2015; the film was released...