Barry Jenkins had to leave Miami before he could fall in love with it. Born at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1979 and raised in Liberty City, he graduated from Northwestern High School, where he played football alongside two future NFL stars, ran track and earned grades good enough to attend Florida State University on a scholarship.
His original plan was to major in English and creative writing. But during his junior year, on a fateful whim, he enrolled in FSU’s prestigious College of Motion Picture Arts school.
“I had always liked movies, but I never in a million years considered making them,” Jenkins, 37, says. “That was something that just didn’t seem possible to me.”
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Although he wasn’t a hardcore film buff as a teenager, Jenkins has strong memories of watching “Die Hard” and “School Daze” repeatedly on TV and going to the movies. “I remember taking the bus to the Omni and feeling really comfortable in the air conditioning watching ‘Coming to America’ or ‘The Color Purple.’ The movie theater was just this place that felt really good. They had this merry-go-round inside the mall that made it look like the Taj Mahal to me.”
Four days after graduating from FSU, Jenkins moved to Los Angeles to pursue a filmmaking career. He spent two years working as a production assistant on various projects, then quit to concentrate on his own movies. His first feature, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” was shot for $13,000 in San Francisco, where Jenkins was living. The movie, inspired by Jenkins’ recent break-up with his girlfriend, followed a young couple over the course of 24 hours after a drunken one-night stand.
“Medicine for Melancholy” was chosen as one of the best movies of the year by The New York Times. Then Andrew Hevia, a fellow Miamian also living in San Francisco, invited Jenkins to return home and direct a short film in 2011 for the seventh edition of the Borscht Film Festival, which Hevia co-founded.
The resulting 20-minute “Chlorophyl,” an ode to the new, arts-friendly Miami that had emerged since Jenkins moved away, didn’t fare that well on the festival circuit. But during his stint with Borscht, Jenkins met playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. The two men had a lot in common — they had grown up within blocks from each other and both had mothers who struggled with drugs — and started talking about adapting McCraney’s autobiographical play “In Midnight Black Boys Look Blue” into a film.
When McCraney won a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship grant in 2013 to further his theater career, he gave Jenkins his blessing to write and direct the movie on his own. “Moonlight,” which was shot in Miami last fall using a combination of professional actors and locals, tells the story of Chiron, a gay young man living in Liberty City with his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), from childhood to adult over the course of three eras, the 1990s, the 2000s and the present-day.
The movie, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, also screened at festivals in Toronto and New York before opening in theaters in October. The critical praise that has greeted the movie has catapulted Jenkins onto Oscar prognosticators’ short lists for a Best Director Academy Award nomination next year.
But the film — an unexpectedly gentle, lyrical portrayal of emotional alienation and the importance of human connection during our formative years — is also a love letter to Miami, urban blight and all.
“Miami felt really small to me when I was a kid,” Jenkins says. “You couldn’t really leave the neighborhood — the city was so compartmentalized — and because of the way I grew up, I don’t remember it as a happy place. But it wasn’t like ‘Boyz n the Hood’ either. There weren’t as many guns on the street as there are now. It didn’t feel like a dark place, even though there were a lot of dark things going on around us.
“People have been talking about how the visuals in ‘Moonlight’ are so bright and colorful and beautiful, and yet the story is so heavy. That’s how I think about growing up in Miami: Life was very heavy, but it was still a beautiful, inspiring place. And I fell back in love with Miami during the process of making this movie. The support from the community was so strong. We tried to cast as many local people as possible, for budgetary reasons and also because I wanted the voice of the city in the film.
“When we shot at night, parents would come out and tell me ‘We don’t usually let our kids out after dark, because there are no street lights, but since you all got your movie lights, it’s a lot safer.’ Kids would come on the set and sit at the video monitors and watch me work and point at me and tell each other ‘He grew up here!’ I could tell from their faces that seeing me — this black dude walking around all this machinery, calling action — was an eye-opening experience.
“It was just as eye-opening for me, because I realized at that moment that maybe if I had seen somebody walking around a movie set like this in my neighborhood when I was a kid, I would have gotten to filmmaking a lot sooner.”
This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of INDULGE magazine.