His stories are about family, both blood and tragedy-made.
They reveal the souls of Black folk and the strength of community that have helped Africans survive in America.
There’s love in the chaos. Always.
“There's so many different ways and modes of Black life, Black culture and I think that, unfortunately, in arts and letters, those multitudes have not been properly reflected,” says director Barry Jenkins. “Part of that is people like myself simply haven't had access to tools to tell their own stories. For me, I don't have a point that I'm trying to make. I'm really just trying to reflect life as it is, but through the prism of blackness.”
Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight, the coming-of-age story about a young African-American man struggling with sexual identity, surprised Hollywood and was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. Moonlight garnered eight Oscar nominations and Jenkins was the first Black filmmaker nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture. The film ended up winning three Academy Awards including Best Picture and netting Jenkins a statue for writing (adapted screenplay).
For his next project Jenkins was inspired by author James Baldwin. If Beale Street Could Talk was Baldwin’s famous novel published in 1974. It looks at the love story of a young Black couple beginning their future together. Their lives take a dark turn when the young man is falsely accused of rape. His incarceration takes a toll on their lives. The book and the film are a reflection of our two Americas, says Jenkins.
“The book — and the film as well — was about illuminating just how different life can be in America based purely on race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality,” says Jenkins. “The systems that are designed to protect our rights and protect our personhood, are not evenly distributed. The system protects some people more than it protects others. Unfortunately, it attacks some people much more than it attacks others.”
Life is quite different now for the young boy whose mother struggled with drug addiction and who grew up poor in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Jenkins’ next project is an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's novel, The Underground Railroad. He is doing a 10-hour limited series for Amazon.
Jenkins has used his not-so-perfect past to inform his storytelling—authentic, true stories about Black lives.
“I think, when I'm making these movies, I get so obsessed with the story and the characters and the camera and all those things that I lose sight of just how lovely a very simple act of tenderness can be for an audience that simply hasn't seen enough of those images reflected on the screen,” says Jenkins. “That's been the best thing. Yeah, it's been a real cool ride so far.”
— Lottie L. Joiner