Moonlight becomes him: Barry Jenkins’s journey from a Miami housing project to the Oscars

He had a hand-to-mouth childhood in a rough neighbourhood, then went to a football college. So how did the 37-year-old end up making the film of the year

Andrew Pulver / The Guardian / February 28, 2018


It is August 2013 and, in a packed auditorium at the Telluride film festival, the first screening of 12 Years a Slave has just taken place. It’s one of the most important films about the African-American experience ever and the team are now taking questions from the emotional crowd. There’s the director Steve McQueen and with him Brad Pitt, but who is that hosting the Q+A? A festival employee called Barry Jenkins, one of those peripheral film-industry types who’s been working at Telluride for a decade, working his way up from toilet-cleaner to gofer to usher to compere.

This gentle rise has since taken an extraordinary turn. Last year, Jenkins was at Telluride for the world premiere of his own film, Moonlight. Its impact has been so profound that he has since been nominated for an Oscar, only the fourth black director – after John Singleton, Lee Daniels and McQueen himself – to get the nod.

“It was an out-of-body experience,” says Jenkins, an affable, unassuming 37-year-old who shakes his head as he thinks back to that premiere. “I didn’t believe it until I was actually up on stage introducing my own film. I was standing in my dreams.”

Being thrown together with Pitt and co at Telluride marked a turning point for Moonlight: Jenkins had for some time been working on the film, a reworking of an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Financing was not going well, but Jenkins’ hosting duties resulted in “the sweetest ambush” – an invitation to dinner and an offer from Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company. “I was so damn naive I didn’t realise a company like Plan B would be interested. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

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Jenkins is not quite the man from nowhere, though. Moonlight is his second feature: his first, a two-hander called Medicine for Melancholy, was released in 2008. An African-American variant on the mumbly, lo-fi hipster romcom, it detailed the aftermath of a one-night stand between an articulate but slightly annoying man who supplies fancy fish tanks and a sleek, good-looking woman who lives with an art curator. It was well liked and won a few awards, but made nothing more than a modest impact. Jenkins then spent a long time not getting Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, an adaptation of Bill Clegg’s junkie memoir, off the ground, and writing for the TV show The Leftovers.