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Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ Journey: How the Year’s Great Discovery Became an American Cinema Milestone

It's not easy for the world to recognize a genuine vision. Here's why Jenkins' took so long to blossom.

Barry Jenkins Moonlight

Barry Jenkins

Daniel Bergeron

Barry Jenkins is about to become the next big thing, but he’s been here before. “Moonlight,” which he wrote and directed, has been celebrated as the year’s major discovery and the ultimate achievement in modern black filmmaking. That’s nothing new for Jenkins: Eight years ago, the director faced similar acclaim on a smaller scale with his 2008 debut, “Medicine for Melancholy.” However, the lag between his first two features is a testament to Jenkins’ quiet determination — and to a culture that had yet to catch up. It takes time for the world to recognize a genuine vision.

“I think a filmmaker like me isn’t on the outside in the same way that I was in 2008, even though the work itself feels very, very outsiderish,” he said. “It’s completely fucking crazy, because it didn’t used to be that way.”  While “Moonlight” marks Jenkins’ transition into a major artist, it also stems from a world that swept him up, spat him out and forced him to find a new way to hack the system.

"Medicine for Melancholy"

“Medicine for Melancholy”

Jenkins made his debut at the SXSW Film Festival in 2008. That was the year of “mumblecore” — a dubious label for low-budget productions focused on rambling characters and flimsy plots. Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” was a scrappy, sepia-toned story (starring future “Daily Show” actor Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) that focused on a young African-American couple wandering San Francisco after a one-night stand. Importing the tradition of Richard Linklater’s walking-and-talking “Before Sunrise,” the film was filled with casual philosophical debates about issues ranging from interracial dating to housing rights. “Medicine” managed to navigate precise sociological terrain even as it remained intimately relatable.

However, those nuances couldn’t stand up to the power of a buzzword trend. At its premiere, the first audience question was, “Would you consider this movie mumblecore?” A few months later, Jenkins was folded into a New York Times photo feature about the alleged movement, which presented him as its sole black member.

A Revolution Begins

IFC Films released “Medicine for Melancholy” in January 2009 and the $15,000-budgeted movie grossed over $100,000 in four months. But it had a bigger impact beyond the box office, quietly inspiring a generation of black filmmakers eager to make movies about the modern world.

One was young film publicist Justin Simien, who decided after seeing “Medicine” to dust off the draft of the project that would become his own well-received debut, “Dear White People.” (The 2014 Sundance hit, a college-set satire of race relations, is currently in production as a Netflix series; Jenkins directs an episode.)

Justin Simien and the cast of "Dear White People"

Justin Simien and the cast of “Dear White People”

Daniel Bergeron

For Simien, “Medicine” was a wakeup call. “I remember halfway through my first viewing of the film, feeling that tinge of awe and envy I always feel when encountering a new and exciting cinematic voice,” he said. “The black cinema revolution had begun, and I’d be damned if I’d miss the train.”

READ MORE: ‘Moonlight’ Review: Barry Jenkins Delivers a Mesmerizing Look at Black Life in America

Another “Medicine” fan was Terence Nance, a Dallas-based filmmaker struggling to finish his handcrafted feature debut, a half-animated diary film called “An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty.” In 2008, Nance turned to Indiegogo in a desperate attempt to gather finishing funds for his unorthodox project. Jenkins noticed it online and wrote Nance.

“He encouraged me to reach the finish line,” Nance said. “I wouldn’t be a filmmaker without him.” Nance also saw “Medicine” when it came out. “I remember walking out of the theater with the mantra, ‘I can do this’ running through my mind,” he said. “I’m sure a large percentage of young black filmmakers will have a similar story.”

Jenkins had been primed for success and faced a new set of opportunities. He signed with Jay Baker at CAA and started taking a lot of meetings. Then nothing turned out quite right.

The Next Step

Jenkins’ initial pass at working with studios came at a seismic moment for their boutique subsidiaries. Many of the ones producing and releasing more adventurous fare — Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent, Picturehouse — would be shelved by the end of the year as the effects of the recession set in. At the studios, smaller projects with stars were becoming less viable. (Filmmaker Ira Sachs recently labeled many of the movies produced at this time as “Bush-era follies.”)

Jenkins also had discussions with Disney executives about a more traditional crowdpleaser. “It was a really positive story,” he said, but the studio hired another filmmaker. (Jenkins won’t name of the project, but it was eventually produced and released.)

READ MORE: New Classics: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Medicine for Melancholy’

Through CAA, Jenkins got a deal with Focus Features, one company that managed to hang on. He could develop any project that struck his interest, and he landed on an inventive story involving Stevie Wonder and time travel. Jenkins went so far as to line up a cast that included the unlikely combo of Solange Knowles and Nance, by then one of Jenkins’ close friends. “Terence was going to play a character loosely based on Madlib, and Solange played this free-thinking performance artist, and they both time-traveled back to 1972,” Jenkins said. “It was really, really dope.” But after two years of development, the high concept went nowhere.

The Focus deal also lead Jenkins to a passion project, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” the devastating memoir of recovering crack addict Bill Clegg. More accomplished filmmakers expressed interest in directing the adaptation, but Jenkins pitched a structurally inventive approach that impressed the producer. He landed the gig, and made his way through three drafts before the project fell apart. “The film I wanted to make was a bit darker than the one they ended up wanting to make,” he said. “So it was taken away from me.”

Still, Jenkins’ body of work continued to grow; he’s baffled by perceptions that he simply dropped off the map. “People either ignore that those other things exists or they act like they don’t count,” Jenkins said. “But I wasn’t just sitting the corner.”

READ MORE: Checking In On Barry Jenkins… 4 Feature Projects In Development, $50,000 Grant & Staying Busy

They included an offer from Borscht Corp., a film collective in his native Miami that landed financing from the Knight Foundation. After watching “Medicine,” Borscht producer Andrew Hevia reached out to Jenkins in a quest to generate more work set in Miami. Jenkins agreed, and in 2011 he directed “Chlorophyl,” a 17-minute burst of expressionistic storytelling that transplanted many of the ideas percolating throughout “Medicine” to a new setting. In this case, an enterprising young Latina struggled with heartbreak and loneliness against the backdrop of Miami scenery.

It showcased Jenkins’ flair for merging characters with their environments, and established Borscht Corp. as an incubator for local talent. “Barry trusted an upstart organization with no track record, just an idea about being able to make movies in Miami,” said Lucas Levya, a co-founder of the collective. “Whether he knows it or not, he’s a big reason for our success.”

Jenkins also made”Remigration,” a short that served as an installment of a PBS series envisioning the near future. It used a dystopian setting to follow a black couple who flees the overpriced housing market for the countryside, only to be coaxed back by the government with the promise of blue-collar employment. The sci-fi approach clarified his ability to explore contemporary problems from imaginative new angles. (It also helps explain why he was a good hire to be a writer on the first season of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” and makes a good case for his time travel project to stay alive.)

READ MORE: Barry Jenkins Talks Turning Down Multi-Million Dollar Studio Gigs To Work On Pet Projects

 Still, Jenkins was losing patience. “It wasn’t quite a death spiral, but it sent me to the point where I just wouldn’t make another movie,” he said.

Making Way for “Moonlight”

Jenkins was at the height of his frustration when he got a call from Adele Romanski, an old classmate and friend from Florida State’s film program. By then, she had produced breakout hits such as 2010’s “The Myth of the American Sleepover” and directed a two-hander relationship drama of her own, 2012’s “Leave Me Like You Found Me.” When she contacted Jenkins, Romanski had just gone through a difficult path on a movie that she eventually abandoned. That experience led to her to a revelation.

“I wanted to make movies with people I know and trust that could matter to somebody,” she said, noting that she wanted to produce films with minority subjects. (This year, they included “Morris From America,” Chad Hartigan’s coming-of-age dramedy about an African-American family living in Germany, which premiered at Sundance; and “Kicks,” Justin Tipping’s debut about a nimble street kid eager to track down a stolen pair of Air Jordans, bowed at Tribeca.)

"Morris From America"

“Morris From America”

Romanski knew she had to be firm. “You need to make another movie,” she told Jenkins. “What do you want it to be? We’ll figure it out.”

READ MORE: In His Own Words: Barry Jenkins Discusses an Exclusive Clip from “Medicine For Melancholy”

Jenkins sent Romanski a flurry of ideas. One focused on a San Francisco police officer scrambling to save the city from an evil genius. “It was sort of like ‘Die Hard’ on the Bay Bridge,” Jenkins recalled. “All these cops who work for SFPD can’t afford to live in the city so they commute from other towns. This guy’s in a position where he has to save San Francisco.” The working title was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Romanski didn’t hesitate. “No, you’re not doing this,” she said.

“We whittled it down to stuff we could produce and control to keep the budget low, but also have it cinematic and personal,” Jenkins said. “We were just like, alright, fuck this. Let’s figure out something we can do where other people can’t fuck with us.”

When Jenkins worked in Miami with Borscht Corp., Hevia introduced to him to playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. He had an understated play that had never been produced, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which followed a young gay black man over three disparate eras as he struggled with his drug-addicted mother, schoolyard bullies, and his repressed sexuality. (Unlike McCraney, Jenkins is not gay, but he did grow up in the Miami projects, and his mother is HIV-positive.)

"Moonlight" - Andre Holland, Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Tarell McCraney, Naomie Harris, Trevante Wright, director Barry Jenkins

Andre Holland, Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Tarell McCraney, Naomie Harris, Trevante Wright, director Barry Jenkins

Daniel Bergeron

The material depended on pointed glances and bursts of emotional behavior rich with cultural implications. Jenkins saw the potential to inject it with complex filmic language.

Romanski sent Jenkins off to Brussels for a month to complete the first draft. (He chose the location on a whim.) The script chronicled the experiences of a young man who as a boy is known by his schoolyard moniker “Little,” to his teenage life as “Chiron” and eventually an alienated drug-dealer nicknamed “Black.” It foregrounded the character’s uneasy mindset more than exposition. “The script was like a piece of literature,” Romanski said. “I tried to ignore the idea that the industry couldn’t make a black, gay movie with no big stars.”

That marketplace deficiency only made Jenkins want to to get the job done. “I’m a guy from the projects who got together with a playwright from the projects to make a movie about a gay black kid from the projects,” Jenkins said. “The whole point of making it was for people who might’ve grown up under similar circumstances.”

When Jenkins sent his draft to Romanski, she recognized its heartbreaking qualities. “I remember sitting in my bed, reading the script, and at the end of each chapter feeling like I’d just been gut-punched,” she said. “I would pause and think, ‘This is heavy. If we do this, it’s going to matter.'”

“A Story That Hasn’t Been Told”

Getting financiers to see the value was another matter. To make his point, Jenkins produced a Powerpoint presentation filled with images to explain his vision.

READ MORE: How TIFF 2016 Rocked The Oscar Race: Why ‘Moonlight’ Glows, ‘Birth’ Struggles, and More Revelations

“While the emotional tone of ‘Moonlight’ is at turns melancholic and muted, the imagery counteracts the drama in our goal of a saturated, sharp-lensed depiction of Miami,” Jenkins wrote in one slide, proposing “a visual language that embraces color and light as motivating tools that can subtly enhance the emotions and themes of the film.”

To help make his case, he included stills from Wong Kar-Wai’s “Happy Together” and Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa,” alongside Gregory Crewdson’s still-life portraits and Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen’s portraits of young Africans. He saved the most powerful statement for a concluding slide labeled “Queer Black Cinema” where he laid out the broader possibilities of the project.

“‘Moonlight’ is a story that hasn’t been told,” Jenkins wrote. “Whether placed as queer black cinema or urban male cinema, the lack of coming of age films featuring people like Chiron and set in places like inner-city Miami is pronounced and unfortunate. While it would be glib to say this lack makes the film an inherently important story to tell, it would be factual to frame it thusly: people like our characters exist.”

The slideshow didn’t work. By late 2013, no financiers had fully committed to “Moonlight.”

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it’s Trevante Rhodes, not Wright.

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