It has been a year since Barry Jenkins won the Best Picture Academy Award for Moonlight, and if you’ve tracked his movements, he has barely been home. He’s obsessed with air travel—and not just getting from point A to point B, like his triumphant return trip to Austin in March as a Film Keynote Speaker exactly 10 years after his first film, Medicine for Melancholy, premiered at the fest. Jenkins also fixates on the perils of the journey itself, posting screenshots of crowded flight paths and potential turbulence, and fretting when he boards a plane so rickety that the armrests still have ashtrays. It’s a fitting neurosis.
Jenkins’ ascent to Oscar success nearly nosedived several times. Map his career, and the trajectory looks less like a 747 than a bumbling bee.
In college, he was a football jock from the Miami projects whose film knowledge didn’t go deeper than Die Hard and Toy Story. Jenkins was one semester away from graduating with a degree in creative writing—from there, he figured he’d teach English, maybe?—when he saw a sign on the Florida State University campus that literally just said, “Film School.” He loved Die Hard. Why not?
Jenkins applied, got in, and immediately realized he was in over his head. Classmates David Robert Mitchell (It Follows), Wes Ball (Maze Runner) and actress Amy Seimetz were talented and ready. He wasn’t. So he took a year off college, put off graduation again, and rented every foreign flick at the library until he had the eyes, heart, and brains to make his first film, My Josephine, a post-9/11 short about two Arabic-speaking laundromat workers who wash American flags for free. A camera leak accidentally turned the footage green. A magical mistake. He loved it.
From there, Jenkins tried to follow a safe path, moving to Hollywood six days after getting his diploma to work as an assistant at Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films. Yet, instead of launching his dreams, the long hours squashed them. After two years and zero completed projects of his own, Jenkins quit, spent eight months bouncing around America by train, and landed in San Francisco with a broken heart.