The Talented Mr. Barry Jenkins - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Talented Mr. Barry Jenkins

The Talented Mr. Barry Jenkins

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because a late great fate that shows up is better than one that never does.

By Eugene S. Robinson

There are probably half a dozen reasons why a Barry Jenkins doesn’t happen, and growing up in the blighted Liberty City in Miami, Florida, where success stories are few and far between is probably the most significant one. But since true talent will out, that’s precisely what Jenkins did, directing his way to Academy Award wins, Time‘s list of the most influential people in the world and the prime pole position on The Carlos Watson Show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Hitting Hollywood: A How-To Guide

Carlos Watson: Had you traveled a lot before you moved to Hollywood?

Barry Jenkins: Not at all. I think my second flight was getting on the plane to move to LA. I hadn’t traveled at all.

Watson: Wow. So how does someone do that? You hear about people doing that all the time, but were you scared graduating from college and deciding to try and make it in Hollywood? How does someone actually get on the plane and do it?

Jenkins: Blissful ignorance. Because it wasn’t something I was excited about. I never imagined I would be sitting here talking to someone like you with this body of work behind me, but all my friends who I still work with to this day, everybody said, “Yo, I’m moving to LA.” I was like, “Well, I guess I’m moving to LA too.” We’ve all been working together for over 20 years since.

My cinematographer was my roommate in college. My editor, I was her cinematographer, she was my production designer. Both of my producers. Yeah, we all moved out at the same time.

[But] I didn’t want to be a filmmaker. There was a film school. I saw an opportunity, got into the program and really just felt … It’s a school where you learn by doing. And I just learned so much working with all my classmates, and it was kind of like the wild, wild West at the time at that film school.

The program was about 10 years old, and they were in this space where, is this going to keep going forward or is it all going to come crumbling down? While they were trying to figure it out, it was like the inmates were running the asylum. It’s interesting because when you look at that school [FSU], the seven or eight most famous alumni were all there in that little four-year window. Every single one of us, which I’m really proud of.

Watson: What would have happened, Barry, if you had not succeeded as a filmmaker, either because you hadn’t gone right away or you’d gone and it just hadn’t worked out? What would you be doing right now?

Jenkins: It’s funny. I thought you were going to ask the other question. I’ve never even thought about this question. Normally, I’m asked, “If you hadn’t become a filmmaker, what would you be doing?” I’d be in Miami teaching high school English. I think I know that for a fact. I probably would have decided to write on the side, but I’d be teaching high school English.

But had I gone to LA and it didn’t work out … and honestly, it didn’t. I left LA and I took trains around the country for a year. And that was when … I did my first job out of film school. I was Darnell Martin’s assistant on a movie produced by Oprah Winfrey, starring Halle Berry. I was Darnell’s assistant on that.

Then I worked at Harpo for a year, but I was a cat, and film school? Your own schedule, you got to make a film this month, that month, that month, all the equipment was provided. I thought, “Oh, that’s filmmaking.”

But I get to Hollywood, it’s like, “Nah. You got to put a lot of time. A lot of things got to break right. And these folks know everybody and this person’s mom and that person’s dad and you’ve got none of that.” So Ms. Winfrey had a very robust benefits package for her employees, so I cashed in my 401(k), which, as someone who’s well-versed in finance, that was not a smart thing to do.

But for me, it was incredibly smart because when I graduated, all the white kids were like, “Oh, I’m going to take a gap year and go backpack in Europe.” I was like, “Well, I can’t afford to do that, but if I cash in this 401(k), I’ll get maybe $6,000. I can backpack or take trains around the U.S.” And so that was when I saw the country.

I was in LA for two years, packed my bags, gave my car to charity, took trains around the country for a year, ended up in San Francisco. And that’s when I decided I was going to make a feature film with whatever means I had, which was $15,000 borrowed from a friend.

Football’s Loss, Film’s Gain

Watson: Take me back to Miami and tell me a little bit about your story. Who were you if I had met you at 7, 8?

Jenkins: I was a very quiet kid. I would have been the kid, if Uncle Carlos walked in the door, I’d have been the last one to come over. Because of certain things in my mom’s life and the house I ended up growing up in, I was just a very reserved child. Again, I just kept so many things in here. I didn’t realize that it was prepping me for what I’m doing now, because I can really coalesce an image in here and then communicate it to someone else.

And I had a couple of saving graces: One, I wasn’t in love or enamored with trouble, and I wasn’t enamored with being seen, being visible. And I was really quick. And so, in the time I grew up … you go outside and you play. And I was real good at playing. Made people have to respect me even though I was the quiet kid.

Watson: Did you play football or basketball or any of that?

Jenkins: I played Pop Warner football. Although my favorite game was throw up tackle, which is the football you see the kids play in the first chapter of Moonlight. It’s kind of like a rugby-style game you played. It’s kind of interesting because I remember watching this Brazilian movie, City of God, where the kids make a soccer ball out of nothing.

I was like, “I know what that’s like. That’s what we would do.” That’s a different kind of football, but we do the same thing. And then when I got to high school, I played organized football and ran track. I was really good at track, and I think I was also pretty good at football. It’s just unfortunate that I played on a football team of people who were exemplary, who were extraordinary athletes. I played with like seven people who made it to the NFL, which is unheard of for any high school.

Watson: Who did you guys have on that squad?

Jenkins: Oh, my God. We had a guy named Marvin Minnis who played at Florida State. Got drafted by the Chiefs. Nate Webster, Torrie Cox, Vernand Morency, Vernon Carey. Amari Cooper was I think just after me. Antonio Bryant. Not the Antonio Bryant for the Steelers. There’s another Antonio Bryant who played at Pittsburgh. He was just before me. Teddy Bridgewater went there. It was just one of those programs, man.

Making ‘Moonlight’

Watson: How did Moonlight come about?

Jenkins: [A] classmate at Florida State … knew the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. He was a kid also from Miami who also went to Florida State. He said, “Hey, this guy Tarell, he’s from the same neighborhood as you, and his mom has a very similar story to yours. You should read this thing he wrote.”

At the same time, my classmate at Florida State, Adele Romanski, who’s now my producer (she was on the stage with me at the Oscars), she calls me and goes, “What’s up? This has to stop. You haven’t made a film in five years. I’m working with people I don’t really care about. I want to work with people I love about things they love. Let’s figure this out. We have to make a film.”

So I was in San Francisco, she was in LA. Once a month, we would have a Google Chat just like this. And literally it was almost like I think she was guilting me, because sometimes we would just sit there and we wouldn’t say more than 10 words in the hour, but she made sure we had the hour session.

Over the course of about six or seven months, finally workshopped a few ideas. And I said, “This kid sent me this play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I think it seems pretty interesting.” “What’s it about?” “Oh, it’s about him growing up and his mom and blah blah.” And she goes, “Well, that sounds just like you.” And I go, “Yeah, it kind of does.” That was when we started chasing it.

She found me a few thousand bucks and said, “What do you need to do to write this?” I said, “I need to go to a country where I don’t know anyone, where I don’t have a phone or internet.” She goes, “Great. If I get you money and send you to Europe, will you write the script?” I said yes. And so I went to what I was told was the most boring place in Europe in the summer, which is Brussels. And that was how the script came about.

I think with what I was looking to do, it was very similar to the train ride. These are the two times of my life where I’ve decided I need to just completely pause everything and reset. Trains around the country for a year, and then I went to Europe for about a month and a half, and I wrote both Moonlight and Beale Street on that trip. But my life was basically two blocks, Carlos. I found a flat on the same street. There was a bar, a restaurant, a cafe and a menswear shop. And that was my life for the two or three weeks I was in Brussels.

Watson: Did you know you had something special?

Jenkins: I didn’t know. Especially with Beale Street, I didn’t know. With Moonlight though, there was a moment where I was sitting in this bar. I remember the name of it. This bar called Lord Byron. Very simple, four tables. Super small. Smaller than the room we’re sitting in right now, the entire bar. And I was sitting there. I had taught them how to make me a makeshift Manhattan. It was a couple of shots of Four Roses, a few drops of Grand Marnier and a little bit of an orange peel. That was it. And I was sitting there with my drink and I was writing and I looked up and I was like, “Oh, I think it’s done. I think it’s done.”

Watson: What would have happened if she [Adele Romanski] had not reentered your life?

Jenkins: I was up in the Bay Area making what we call branded content. There were a few years where Mark Zuckerberg was on the stage introducing Facebook Pages. My little company, the guy who made Moonlight, had directed the video that played behind him. I might still be doing those things, man. Yeah, it’s something that I think about every now and then. That’s why I try to be humble and not take much credit for these things because the village that has surrounded me is just so damn special.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories