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Barry Jenkins: from relative unknown to 8 Oscar nominations for 'Moonlight'

Director Barry Jenkins poses during the press day for
Director Barry Jenkins poses during the press day for "Moonlight" at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands last month.
Director Barry Jenkins poses during the press day for
Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in the film, "Moonlight."
David Bornfriend
Director Barry Jenkins poses during the press day for
A scene from "Moonlight" with actor Ashton Sanders as the teenaged version of the central character, Chiron.
David Bornfriend

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At the Telluride Film Festival last September, Barry Jenkins' film, “Moonlight,” seemingly came out of nowhere.

Jenkins only had one other feature-length film under his belt. But “Moonlight” was the breakout hit at the very festival where Jenkins volunteered for years. It’s a coming-of-age movie that focuses on a young black man in three stages of his life. He’s struggling to understand his sexuality while growing up in a tough Miami neighborhood.

“Moonlight” received almost universal acclaim from critics when it opened in theaters. And now it has eight Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture. Jenkins is also nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. (The film is based on an unproduced play by Tarrell Alvin McCraney.)

Jenkins recently sat down with The Frame host John Horn and his co-host of The Awards Show Show podcast, Kyle Buchanan. They talked about how Jenkins is handling the hectic pace of his first Academy Awards experience. 

Interview Highlights:

On being an artist in a time of social and political turmoil:

My priorities haven't changed and I was reminded of that ... I have this tweet pinned at the top of my Twitter page and it's my first short film that I made 12 years ago. I look at that film and I see everything that I want to keep doing going into the future. What it reminds me of is, as I'm contextualizing the pieces that are in front of me now, I do view them differently because I don't want to waste anybody's time [who's] going to walk into the cinema or sit down before a television and watch the images that I'm creating. I want to create those images in a way that I think will be productive and I think will speak to the truth of what life is like now in America.

In a nutshell. This short is about an Arab-American couple washing American flags on the night shift. It was written by me, a young black dude from the projects, and it was meant to show empathy for Muslim-Americans in a post 9/11 America. I'm trying to be objective about my own work, but I do think it's a beautiful example of someone trying to identify with someone else's experience. 

On shooting "Moonlight" where he grew up near Miami:

We were filming in one of the most notorious housing projects in Miami, which also is one of the most tight-knit communities in Miami. Getting in there was a process. We were shooting at night [where] the drug dealers shoot out the street lights. But we had all these movie lights so the parents were like, This is great! We can let our kids come out at night because you guys are here. Then, over the course of making the film, because I'm not at video village a lot — I like to be beside the [cinematographer], beside the actors — I look back and Adele Romanski, our producer, had given video village over to the kids in the neighborhood. They're watching me direct. I saw in their faces something I didn't see when I was their age: they saw a guy from the neighborhood making this movie and creating this art. It was one of the few moments where I realized not the importance of the film, but the importance of the act in a certain way. 

On showing the film to his mother, who in part inspired a drug-addicted character in the film:

When [the Academy Awards are] all done, I go back to Miami and I'll pop in a DVD and we'll sit down and watch this movie. I think that's how it's going to play out because she's read everything about it. She probably could read, scene-for-scene — based on all the reviews — all that happens in this film. But maybe she's waiting for me to be there with her to watch it. I'm nervous about it, but only because I remember what it was like on set to watch Naomie [Harris] perform these scenes. I can't imagine what it'll be like for [my mother] to watch.

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