The first time I met Barry Jenkins was at one of those parties during the Toronto International Film Festival that I really had no business being at. Walking to the bar, a man approached me and said, “I read your review of my movie.” Now, these types of conversations can go two very different ways. This was a party for American Honey, so for a split second my mind started racing back trying to remember everything I had ever said about that particular movie before I remembered I had never written about it. Then the man says, “Hi, I’m Barry Jenkins.” Ohhhh, yes, the man who directed the most groundbreaking movie of the year. This would be one of the nice types of these conversations! (Well, at least until I opened my mouth and realized, after the few cocktails I had consumed, I probably shouldn’t be talking to anyone right at this moment. Let’s just say that I “gushed.”)
The second time I’d meet Barry Jenkins was recently at the offices of A24 — the studio releasing Moonlight — here in New York City. When you meet Jenkins (in a situation in which you are not gushing) he’s warm, friendly, but it’s also obvious he’s got his eye on you in a kind of, “Okay, pal, what’s your angle here?” kind of way. I get the sense he’s deeply protective of his film. (Heck, I sure would be if I were him.) Which leads him to be one of my favorite types of interviews: someone who is very interactive. Someone who doesn’t just answer questions but tries to find the meaning of why that question was even asked in the first place.
Moonlight (which is currently playing at the New York Film Festival and will be released October 21) is divided into three sections, each showing us a snippet of the life of Chiron (also referred to as “Black” and “Little”) — played by Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevente Rhodes as an adult. The film explores the ideas of what masculinity is supposed to mean, especially growing up as an African American man, and the transformations that happen to Chiron (that can be shocking) as he explores his own sexuality. It’s one of the best films of 2016.
With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has, without a doubt, created something that can be described as “groundbreaking.” (Just don’t tell him that.)
You have to be thrilled with the reactions so far.
I mean, so far, so good. You know, when you make these things, you imagine nobody’s going to want to watch them or only your best friends will want to watch them.
Is that an experience from your last movie, Medicine for Melancholy? People liked that movie but it didn’t have a wide audience.
Oh, the last movie, absolutely. I mean, that movie was made basically in a closet.