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Moonlight Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on the Bittersweet Feeling of Being a First

9 minute read

There are a lot of reasons why Barry Jenkins might not have expected to be in the position he’s in today: the first black filmmaker nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture and the face of the most critically revered movie of 2016. The writer-director of Moonlight grew up poor, in the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, where his mother struggled with drug addiction. He’s a relatively late bloomer when it comes to filmmaking, not finding his way to the medium until his junior year at Florida State University. His projects remained mostly under the radar in the eight years between the release of his little seen but much respected first movie, Medicine for Melancholy, and Moonlight last October. And while his new film had a lot of things going for it, obvious commercial appeal was not one of them.

But today, Moonlight has a Golden Globe and eight Oscar nominations under its belt, and its box office take is more than triple its $5 million budget. The story of a young boy growing up poor in Liberty City, with a mom addicted to crack and a repressed attraction to other boys, is remarkable not only for its subject matter but for its lush visual palate and dreamlike aesthetic. As America emerges from a year that saw frequent headlines about young black men killed by police, and from a month in which the shift in power has many fearing for their rights, audiences have found profound urgency in Moonlight.

On the heels of a trip to Europe, where he screened Moonlight in six different cities, Jenkins talked to TIME about the life-saving power of representation and the bittersweet feeling of awards recognition when so many who came before him never got their due.

TIME: How has the response to Moonlight stacked up to your expectations?

Jenkins: It’s definitely exceeded my expectations. But I don’t mean that because I had modest expectations for the film. There’s just certain aspects of this movie that are challenging. There’s no movie stars. Structurally, it’s a bit adventurous, it’s visually adventurous. So it’s not built to be a commercial piece of art and yet people are coming to the cinema, and they’re seeing the work for what it is and appreciating it, but also finding a way to see themselves in it, no matter who they are or where they come from.

The movie is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s short play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Have you found that many people assume it’s your story?

Yeah. I think the starting point is different than the end point. I think it has become my story. Working on a film that had to be made in the way this film was made, it’s kind of impossible to do it without giving your full self over to it. And if you read about this film, you will read that Barry Jenkins is straight and the character in our film is gay. So if people feel like they see me in the piece, I take it as the highest compliment.

What reaction have you gotten from people in Liberty City, Miami, where the movie is set?

The community really took ownership. The first voice you hear in the film is not one of our actors—it’s not Mahershala Ali—it’s the voice of a kid who came into a community center to an open casting call. I think that puts a stamp on the piece. People see the main character as any one of the hundreds of kids living in that neighborhood. Tarell and I are from that neighborhood, and they see that we have a Golden Globe, that we have eight Academy Award nominations, and they see themselves in that.

It seems like one of the reasons the movie has caught on so much is that many people have an opportunity to see themselves in a way that maybe they’ve never been able to walk into a movie theater or turn on a TV and see.

I’m on Twitter and Instagram, and I get these messages from total strangers all the time, saying just that. They never thought that they would walk into a theater and, as you said, see themselves onscreen. When you have such a lack of representation, such a lack of images, two things can happen. Either you start to feel like you’re voiceless, or people who don’t live in close proximity to you can conveniently start to think you don’t exist, that you’re invisible. When images do arise to fill that lack, they take on added importance.

Do you see the main character, Chiron, as an antidote to stereotypes about black masculinity?

I did not sit down to draw him in that way, not as a response to anything. [I was] trying to do justice to Tarell’s work and Tarell’s life. It’s not that characters like Chiron didn’t exist before. It’s just that they don’t often get centered in narratives. There was a point where I realized there were things happening in front of the camera that I hadn’t seen very often, or ever. Watching a black man cradle a boy in the Atlantic Ocean—I hadn’t seen that before. That’s a very simple image. It’s not something you draw to counter a stereotype.

How did you approach the depiction of his mother, who is addicted to crack?

This character was drawn from my mom, from Tarell’s mom, so the idea of a stereotype never presented itself to me. When you’re drawing from inside the community, you’re drawing on human beings and not any stereotype. The reception of the character was something that I was concerned about. The way I work, things are very nuanced, not everything is explained. I hoped that people would see into some of the very simple gestures that Naomie [Harris] performs as a character and see both sides of her, the vice and the virtue. I haven’t seen that many depictions of this supposed black crackhead mom. I remember [Spike Lee’s] Jungle Fever and David Simon’s The Corner, which was amazing. Otherwise, I feel like we’re afraid of these images to the point that we stifle people from depicting things that they actually lived through.

The way the film captures light is remarkable. What were you and cinematographer James Laxton going for?

Cinema is a little over 100 years old, and a lot of what we do is built around film emulsion. Those things were calibrated for white skin. We’ve always placed powder on skin to dull the light. But my memory of growing up in Miami is this moist, beautiful black skin. And this movie is meant to reflect the consciousness of the character—of me and Tarell, to be honest. So we used oil. I wanted everyone’s skin to have a sheen to reflect my memory.

What do you make of people’s tendency to politicize this film?

Art is inherently political. Even trying to make a film that has nothing to do with politics is, in and of itself, a political act. Once we make the work and release it into the world, it’s beyond our control. This movie premiered under one President and is now going into the awards season under a different President. I’ve seen the cultural currency of the film shift just over the course of those six to eight weeks.

How do you feel about Moonlight being pitted against the musical La La Land, another Oscar front-runner?

They could not be more different films. I don’t think a love for one has to be to the rejection of the other. I can only speak to the film I made, which was made in the service of shining a light on a character who is often marginalized. Where that falls in the context of the awards season, I can’t say. But I love that regardless of where we are right now, a year and a half ago, we sat down to make this thing, and that’s exactly how I felt and it’s how I feel now.

How does it feel to be the first black writer-director to be nominated for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay?

It’s bittersweet. I shouldn’t be the first. I’ll be happy when there’s no longer any space for firsts because it’ll mean those things have been done. I wouldn’t be the first person who’s merited this distinction. I don’t understand how someone like Spike Lee has never been nominated for these three awards. The greatest thing is, I can take out my phone and look at messages from total strangers who feel a little bit less alone because of this film. I do recognize that it’s larger than me. That’s why I even hesitate to speak on it, because I think it’s larger than me. But it’s important to note that the barrier is not mine to break. I made a piece of work. The barrier does not fall to me. The barrier belongs to the Academy.

A couple months ago you tweeted the link to your very first short film, My Josephine. How do you feel rewatching it now, 14 years later?

There was a moment where I thought I couldn’t be a good filmmaker because of who I was and where I was from. I grew up black and poor, and my mom went through these things depicted in the film. And making that movie proved to me that I could do the work to make myself as accomplished as anyone else. And it’s just a reminder that even from the beginning, I was working to humanize others and to center marginalized characters. It’s just a reminder to keep doing that.

What are you into other than filmmaking?

I love coffee. I’ve got, like, eight different ways to make coffee at my house. That’s about it. I’m so damn boring. I like reading and writing and making coffee. And walking. Barry Jenkins likes long walks.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com