“I didn’t believe it until I was actually up on stage introducing my own film. I was standing in my dreams.” These were the words of American film director Barry Jenkins following the screening of his 2016 film Moonlight at Telluride Film Festival. This film would later go on to become one of the most celebrated achievements of the 2010s, and a landmark in the modern film industry.
Jenkins himself was born in Miami, Florida in 1979, the youngest of four siblings, each from a different father. His mother suffered from drug addiction and as a result Jenkins was primarily raised by an older woman who was not a blood relative. His directorial debut came in 2008 in the form of Medicine for Melancholy, which had a staggeringly low budget of $15,000. His unique influence from foreign directors such as Wong Kar-Wai and Claire Denis gained him connections at Telluride, and fuelled his rise within the film industry, though he doubted if he could truly succeed. “I had to ask questions of myself,” he says. “Am I not good at this because I am poor and black and my mom was a drug addict? Or am I not good at this because I am new to it and just don’t know the machinations of making a film?”. These fears subsided when Jenkins received an offer from Brad Pitt’s production company to help him make his next feature film, Moonlight.
His unique influence from foreign directors such as Wong Kar-Wai and Claire Denis gained him connections at Telluride, and fuelled his rise within the film industry, though he doubted if he could truly succeed.
The budget for Jenkins’ second film was $1.2 million, which is still very low by industry standards, however Moonlight went on to become the first ever film with an all-black cast to win the Oscar for best picture. This came as a shock, but not because the quality of the film was lacking. The story (adapted from the play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue) is a powerfully subtle 3-act character study which delves into masculinity, sexuality, and race in a manner that is exceedingly beautiful, even without considering the masterful filmmaking Barry Jenkins demonstrated while bringing the screenplay to life. The reason Moonlight’s best picture win came as a shock was because the academy had a history of underrepresenting films like this. Pillars of queer cinema, as well as films that represent the experiences of ethnic minorities, have previously gone unrecognised, despite clearly being of the same calibre as those which are given the Oscar spotlight. The impact Moonlight had on awards culture can be felt to this day in the shift towards more diverse cinema in the list of winners. Films such as Everything Everywhere All at Once which feature more diverse casts and themes are finally getting the mainstream recognition they deserve, and Barry Jenkins’ best picture win was certainly a stepping stone towards this reality.
The impact Moonlight had on awards culture can be felt to this day in the shift towards more diverse cinema in the list of winners.
Aside from critical recognition, Moonlight also had a significant impact on the film industry internally. The way Jenkins uses cinematography to convey meaning is incredibly unique, for example, switching between anamorphic and spherical lenses to show the protagonist’s mental state. The care behind these aspects of filmmaking set an industry-wide precedent, resulting in many directors implementing similar bold aesthetic choices in their projects, notably Waves (2019), Zola (2020), or even the TV show Euphoria.
Jenkins also followed Moonlight with If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) which further solidified his reliability as a director, as it shared many of the same qualities as its 2016 predecessor. Personally, I will be eagerly awaiting any future releases from Barry Jenkins, and I hope that through this artist spotlight, many more people who perhaps missed them will consider watching his films so far.