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‘Moonlight’ Director Barry Jenkins Almost Didn’t Become a Filmmaker, But Now He’s an Oscar Heavyweight: Awards Spotlight

How an unexpected opportunity became one of 2016's most indelible feats of storytelling and a defining moment in an emerging filmmaker's career.

Barry Jenkins Moonlight

Barry Jenkins

Daniel Bergeron

A year ago, Barry Jenkins was still a secret of the indie film world, having directed a well-liked but little-seen movie in 2008 (“Medicine for Melancholy”). He kept busy with shorts, commercial work, and various unfinished projects — but it wasn’t until “Moonlight” surfaced in the fall of 2016 that Jenkins’ career jumped to a whole new level.

The beloved drama about an alienated African-American boy in Miami, which takes place across three time periods, emerged as an unlikely hit just as awards season took flight. To date, it has grossed over $21 million in the U.S. The momentum continued with eight Academy Award nominations, including two for Jenkins in the directing and adapted screenplay categories. He also picked up writing and directing prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, the WGA, and others.

No matter what happens at the ceremony, Jenkins’ success is a startling accomplishment. The filmmaker adapted Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play into a gorgeous cinematic tone poem about alienation and loss that defies the boundaries of language. “I think a filmmaker like me isn’t on the outside in the same way that I was in 2008,” he said last fall. Jenkins’ work has inspired many other young black filmmakers, including “Dear White People” director Justin Simien, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

It may come as a surprise that Jenkins almost didn’t become a filmmaker at all. In the below videos, he talks about his original interest in teaching and the way his abrupt discovery of film school changed his path for good.

Jenkins also explains his approach to adapting the screenplay for “Moonlight,” and why he believes the emotions are accessible to a wide audience.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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