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An Interview with Barry Jenkins

A graph is presented, depicting the amount of time that people spend on social media. It can be seen that the average individual spends roughly two hours daily on such platforms.

This amount of time is broken down into short periods of time, with the majority of users accessing their accounts multiple times a day.

Astonished. That’s the best way to explain how I felt when I was given the chance to talk to Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins in person at the Believer Festival in Las Vegas in April 2018.

Jenkins was on a roll by then and I was worried I’d be asking questions he’d already heard many times before.

My first encounter with Jenkins’s work was while watching _Moonlight. It was very clear that I was experiencing something extraordinary.

Its cinematography and lighting were done with a deep understanding of black skin, mirroring the transformation of a black, queer boy living in Miami, who are both discriminated against._

It appears that Barry Jenkins is not only a filmmaker, but he is also a bibliophile, having directed the movie If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, and is set to helm an Amazon series based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Underground Railroad.

I was surprised that the interview seemed to go by so quickly, despite the fact that it was enjoyable. Barry was as enthusiastic in person as he is on Twitter, and never missed a beat.

I was somewhat nervous since I’m not an expert in the field like Barry, yet he made it much simpler than I had anticipated. Even before the interview, he mentioned that he had seen an op-ed of mine that I had written for the New York Times a few months previously.

He even praised me onstage during the interview, as if it were an honor for me to be interviewing him, and not the other way around. Interviewing Barry was one of the best moments of my year.

–Morgan Jerkins is an author who is renowned for exploring issues of identity and culture in her work.

I. “JOJOBA OIL AND SHEA BUTTER AS A COMBINATION”

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MORGAN JERKINS: As a starting point, I wanted to discuss adapting stories that don’t belong to you. In the literary world, there is often the debate about cultural appropriation, particularly when it comes to white people attempting to write about people of color.

In the case of Moonlight, which is a movie about queer black men, and you not being part of that group, I was curious if you had any qualms about adapting the story.

When Barry Jenkins first read Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which the movie Moonlight was based on, he had to ask himself if there was a limitation on how close a storyteller could get to someone else’s experience.

After the movie was released, Jenkins was often surprised when people were taken aback to learn that he was not queer since he himself is straight. He would explain that the queer storyteller was McCraney.

I believe that when some individuals create stories, they have good intentions; however, it is hard to relate to someone on a personal level if you can’t comprehend their life experiences.

You can’t make a genuine piece of art about something you have never experienced or would never be in a position to experience if you have a comfortable life.

In this scenario, Tarell McCraney had written the play’s groundwork. I was unfamiliar with Tarell since we had been on our own paths to go to different high schools.

Tarell had gone to the prestigious arts school in the city while I remained on the track to attend Miami Northwestern, the same school the film is based off of. Our lives were quite similar up until sixteen.

Our mothers were both addicted to crack, we were born a year apart from one another, and both of our moms had contracted HIV from IV drug use in the ’80s. Tarell’s mother passed away from AIDS-related illnesses, and my mom is still living but has the virus. Thus, everything one could imagine being the same for two people who grew up within four blocks of each other was the same, with the difference being our sexual identities.

I was taken aback when I thought about how much I had in common with someone else, and then I encountered this tall, good-looking, muscular guy–if you know Tarell, you know what I’m talking about. He was like a god.

It made me question if I was subconsciously saying that someone’s sexuality was a hindrance to me understanding their experience. I didn’t want to think that was true of the world.

I felt that as our lives shared many similarities, it was my responsibility to learn as much as I could from Tarell about his experiences. With his trust, I found the strength to create the piece.

Once I had emerged from the process of creating the movie, I was thankful that Tarell had given me his trust without me having to ask for it. I was also glad to hear from so many people how much the movie meant to them, since Tarell is not a filmmaker.

It was up to me to do the hard work of transforming the source material into something that could be seen on the screen.

MJ asked what advice would be given to creators who don’t have as unique a story as yours and Tarell’s, and nevertheless want to write about other people’s experiences in terms of race or sexuality that they cannot personally relate to.

BJ reflected on the past when there was no internet. She went to high school without email, yet nowadays it is possible to find nearly anything with a few clicks of a button.

Therefore, she believes one has to make an effort to remain ignorant in 2018. However, she noted that if one is willing to put in the work, it is possible to get the answers they seek.

It’s amusing to me that the prior time I was posed with this query, I responded in a jocular manner. I said something along the lines of, “Has anyone ever gone to the red planet? How often have you witnessed tales about a voyage to Mars?” It appears to be a common occurrence.

It’s one thing to go to Mars, but it’s a whole different experience getting to know Tarell McCraney. Even so, I strongly believe it’s doable.

MJ: As a child, you were quite reserved, whereas I was not. I believe that in the movie Moonlight, silence is utilized in an extraordinary manner. From the first scene, Chiron remains silent. When I was watching it, I was wondering if he was ever going to speak

The movie also concludes without any dialogue. I was interested in understanding, as a director, how do you demonstrate to the audience that silence can be a form of communication?

Especially when it comes to African American characters, because we tend to be protective or aggressive when we communicate. How did you manage to do that?

BJ revealed they had experienced a particularly hurtful review of their film—it was an unofficial blog post—that focused on the character of Chiron.

They were taken aback as the review had suggested Chiron was autistic. BJ shared that their upbringing was similar to Chiron’s in that they largely kept to themselves and were often alone. Their family background was difficult and the 1980s were a harsh time for inner cities, especially Miami. It was in this environment that BJ adapted to life by observing others instead of speaking. It was only when their grandmother asked if they were hungry that they nodded in response.

I had to meld together Chiron’s character with my own and Tarell’s. It was a very fulfilling experience to delve deeper into the character. Chiron is going to be a lot like myself and Tarell, so people really need to observe him to comprehend how he is feeling.

If somebody decides to talk to him, that’s his cue that they can be trusted.

When Juan arrived, his attitude was one of suspicion. He thought to himself, “This guy is still looking at me. He’s making direct eye contact.

I can believe he is genuine.” Janelle Monae’s character, Teresa, had a face that was full of trustworthiness, and Juan was sure he could count on her. In the screenplay, the writer included a lot of descriptions of action scenes that the author couldn’t have done themselves.

It was like a way to cheat, but the author still tried to give it a shot.

The scene in the movie with two characters wrestling is represented in the screenplay as one line, “They wrestle in the grass.” Yet, I recently looked at the screenplay and noticed it was actually three-quarters of a page due to the intention to communicate through the silence.

This same concept of communicating with visuals rather than dialogue is what I love about cinema, and it is applied to characters of all backgrounds and orientations.

What makes it special is the ability of the image and the actors to express more than what words can convey in that context. Sadly, this is not often seen in the film industry.

I experienced many people in my past who, as they aged, became increasingly withdrawn from society. This sparked the idea in me to create a film that focuses on one of these persons.

MJ inquired further about the aesthetic principles of black faces, specifically asking about the lighting of black faces.

They were aware that in the realm of photography, there is a considerable amount of racism. Moreover, they noted that in the TV show Insecure, the lighting of black faces is done very well. They asked if the speaker could elaborate on the process of achieving that.

When I first started attending film school, I was already behind because I was older than I appeared. At that time, everything was shot on film.

This meant that I had to learn how to adjust the image for the light, as the lab would develop it before we were able to view it. I made two films, one called Little Brown Boy that was similar to Moonlight, and the other was about an Arab American couple in the post-9/11 South. I had to learn about the historically racist nature of 35 mm film, which was designed to appeal to suburban white families and was not geared towards darker skin tones.

Eventually, I learned about Malik Sayeed, the cinematographer of Belly, and Cesar Charlone, the DP for City of God. Charlone discussed the use of cooking oil to reflect the moonlight on the actors’ dark skin, which I found to be a great idea.

I then realized that when making a film, the makeup department typically uses powder on the actors, but this should not be done on black skin. Instead, I suggested using jojoba oil and shea butter.

MJ expressed his/her enthusiasm with an affirmative yes.

BJ: It is amazing that Moonlight had the timing it did, because I am very privileged to have access to the ARRI Alexa camera.

This particular camera, made in Germany, along with the Hogg lenses, also made in Germany, allowed for a lot of latitude in post-production. Without this camera, the movie could not have looked the way it did, if it had been made in 2012 with the same budget.

The digital camera was not limited by the rules of 35 mm film, which is often systemically racist, and it allowed for a dark subject to be placed next to a bright one and for each to be adjusted to whatever calibration was desired.

II. I DO NOT OWN MY TWEETS.

MJ: Set in Miami, the film Moonlight avoids featuring more familiar South Beach icons and instead turns its focus to Liberty City. Directors like Spike Lee who highlight Fort Greene, Brooklyn and John Singleton who has captured South Central LA come to mind.

I would like to discuss the significance of Liberty City for you and how significant it was to ensure that the area was depicted as an active part of the story alongside the characters.

BJ: It’s complicated for me, because I was born and raised in Miami, but I never made art set in this city. Art was something I had no connection to from my upbringing in Liberty City. I was an athlete, but I saw there wasn’t a future in that due to the other great athletes around me.

It was only after enrolling in film school that I stumbled into film, making Moonlight being something that filled me with fear.

I have to give props to Tarell McCraney for giving me the courage to make a film set in Miami. I wanted to showcase a genuine version of the city, since Michael Mann has already highlighted the art deco and neon side of it. But, there is a completely different story to tell about Miami as well.

I must give credit to some of the hip-hop artists, like Rick Ross, for giving Miami mention in their music videos. But there are also characters such as Chiron, who have yet to have their stories told. When making Moonlight, it was essential that the city of Miami be able to speak for itself.

Therefore, I made sure to be comfortable with whoever ended up in the frame. Although the movie features many Hollywood stars, like Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monae, the first voice to be heard belongs to Shariff Earp.

He was not the right fit for the role he auditioned for, but I was intrigued when he expressed his desire to change his life. His voice was the sound of Miami, and that is why I chose him to be the first voice we hear.

So, the first person you hear speaking in the movie is somebody who had just been released from the county three months prior. And, Moonlight was released in many countries, requiring subtitles.

Therefore, the screenplay and film had to be sent to distributors, and these people who spoke like the characters in the film would then email about the first five minutes being difficult to understand because it wasn’t really English.

I remember thinking to myself, “Oh no, this isn’t in the script! This person is real.” I wanted them to just be themselves. As I was subtitle-adding, I felt something had shifted.

When viewers enter the theatre to see Moonlight, the first thing they hear is “Every Nigger Is a Star” which can be overwhelming for some. And then they are welcomed to the unfamiliar Miami they are about to explore. This was the thing I was most proud of with the film.

MJ: Before reaching a successful level, many artists have to work their way up. That being said, do you now feel like there are other pressures to deal with? Do you think these expectations, coming from your team or your admirers, have an impact on your career?

BJ: Is it obvious? Is it clear? Are you able to recognize?

MJ asked if it was more challenging to be creative.

BJ: Working with the same people doesn’t make it any tougher to be experimental. The movie that made me famous was already pretty experimental. When I step into a room for a meeting, people already know what to expect.

Some of the actors might be new to them, but the quiet moments and the odd camera angles will become clearer in time. So the experimental nature of my work isn’t even an issue.

I feel a certain duty in regards to the attention that has been given to me, an individual that seemingly appeared out of thin air. You rapidly learn that there are certain activities you are capable of, and for me, that is creating.

I’m 38 and have been actively making films for 16 years. That I can do. However, the rest of it? I have no idea what to do, really. It’s something totally unexpected that I’m in the middle of and I’m still figuring out how to manage it, but I’m doing the best I can considering I’m still working with the same people.

When I overdo something, people who have known me for many years will be quick to say, Woah! You need to take a step back and think about what you are doing. This really helps me get back in line. It is important to make sure I still do things the same way and for the same reasons.

MJ: Yes? What other kinds of things are you referencing?

BJ: I recall sitting on an aeroplane while imbibing, and noticed somebody next to me was screening Notting Hill. My immediate reaction was to take to Twitter and post about the other passenger’s viewing choice.

MJ recalled spotting the object in question.

BJ commented that he has lost his anonymity since his tweets became news stories, and he can no longer do things quietly. He mentioned that he has to think twice before engaging in a public conversation as it will surely generate a reaction from the public.

These are just some of the other things he has to consider now.

Yet, I’m aware of the responsibility that comes with the fact that I’m a symbol to many young black filmmakers when I go to a gallery opening or a museum. Despite this, I must still stay true to my art and the reasons why I create the way I do.

Although it is tricky, I acknowledge that I can’t ignore the symbolism I have.

3. SHOW COMPASSION AND LENIENCY TOWARD YOURSELF

MJ mentioned that you are working on something that is based off Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad.

BJ: Indeed, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is a novel that I had the pleasure of encountering. My initial employment in the industry was at Harpo Studios, where I got to assist Ms. Winfrey during the production of Their Eyes Were Watching God, featuring Halle Berry. Darnell Martin and Suzan-Lori Parks were present for the adaptation of various components, and I was fortunate to have been present in that environment.

I have a tendency to use visuals when I tell stories, so it was great to work with people who could handle the story development while I figured out how to convey the story with visuals.

Moonlight was special to me in that it felt incomplete, which left me with the opportunity to tell the story through visuals as well as words.

MJ: Is there any other type of material you’re currently reading? Can you tell me about books or maybe a few articles you’ve read online?

BJ mentioned that they reread The Underground Railroad and If Beale Street Could Talk frequently. Additionally, they have been reading through French books that have been translated into English, in an effort to find a project to do with actress Isabelle Huppert.

As for leisurely reading, BJ has a stack of Acne Paper and BOMB magazines, along with interviews. The combination of novels for work, and magazine interviews, is what BJ enjoys reading.

MJ: Can we have a discussion about your activity on Twitter? It seems like you’re quite involved with it, and as a rule–

BJ expressed a need to reduce the intensity of whatever he was doing and announced that he was doing so.

MJ inquired, “What do you make of it? Is it only for amusement or do you use it to generate new concepts, or what?” They went on to explain that when conversing with other artists, they’ve found that some people of color find it to be a distraction, but it is also a way to form and maintain a community.

BJ has been able to connect with seventeen-year-olds in Scotland who are passionate about movies, as well as stay in touch with what’s happening in the news. He also pays attention to Black Twitter, as it’s become its own news source.

He used to have only two thousand followers on the platform, and mostly just listened rather than spoke. Now, he still tries to avoid using it for promotional purposes, because he wants it to function the same way it did before he had a following.

BJ finds it to be a liberating space and a great distraction from the loneliness of being a writer.

He loves it, and it’s the only social media platform he’s still using.

MJ asked for suggestions of other filmmakers who should be noticed.

BJ spoke of the difficulty in choosing a film to recommend, noting that there are a number of great filmmakers such as Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay that should be looked into.

They then suggested looking at music videos, mentioning a French duo called the Blaze and their video for the song “Territory.” This video was cited as the best one seen in 2017, detailing a story about an Algerian boxer living in Paris who is forced to return home.

In terms of suggesting filmmakers to watch, I would point people to those who have been chosen as Vimeo staff picks. For instance, Carey Williams who has won awards at Sundance and South by Southwest for his movie Emergency.

It’s worth noting that the most inventive and eye-catching work is being done in the realm of short films.

MJ asked what routines or rituals the individual had in order to get the writing started.

BJ spoke of his fondness for coffee, and then whiskey. He shared that he obtained two Bachelor’s degrees from Florida State, one in Creative Writing and the other in Filmmaking, though he questioned the quality of those degrees.

He then inquired if the other party had attended Princeton.

MJ: Absolutely not! Please don’t do that. Do not proceed with that action.

BJ declared that they have exceeded their expectations in the current situation.

MJ stated that they do not have an Academy Award-winning director’s credentials.

BJ advises to be kind and gentle with oneself when writing, as some days will produce eight pages of work and other days will be less successful. He cannot control the amount he produces, but as he becomes a better writer, he may find he can.

As an example, BJ wrote the script for Moonlight in only ten days, an accomplishment he has never matched since. This was an incredibly fortuitous period for him, and he looks back on it fondly.

I would like to return to discussing filmmakers. This is a great time to be a filmmaker from the outside looking in, since the quality of the work is backing up the trend.

There was a tweet about director Ryan Coogler making Black Panther at the same time that I was in post-production on Moonlight. I had already acquainted myself with Ryan before Fruitvale [Station] was released.

He visited Marvel and had a bit of time to come watch a cut of Moonlight, providing a few helpful notes. One of which ended up in the film. After he left, I tweeted about how Ryan Coogler is always really busy, yet he always answers my call and assists me.

I find it incredible to have achieved the level I’m at, as it allows people to observe the accomplishments of myself, Ava, Ryan, and Jordan Peele. There is a mutual admiration among us all; no one is trying to pull the others down.

Two weeks ago, I was in a postproduction phase for Beale Street which wasn’t particularly enjoyable to me. Out of nowhere, I received a text from Ryan Coogler that read, “Hey, Barry. Just checking in on you, man. Just want you to know I’m thinking of you.

Hit me up if you need something.” His kindness shocked me as I was expecting him to be off in some tropical place, given how difficult it was for him to make the movie. The fact that someone ten years younger than me was looking out for me was a blessing.

When I contemplate how I got to this place, I just keep pushing forward.

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