Berry Jenkins at the SXSW 2008 premiere of Medicine for Melancholy

 

Tracing Barry Jenkins’ Path From Medicine to Moonlight

Oscar winner’s long, strange trip back to SXSW

By Amy Nicholson

02/1/2018

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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.

For work, he woke up at 4:30am to unload clothes at a Banana Republic. When people asked what he did for real, he said he made films, which felt like a lie. So he resolved to write and shoot his $13,000 romance Medicine for Melancholy, a two-person tour of the Bay Area where young black hipsters Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins) meet, woo and bicker about racial identity and the rich white boyfriend that Jo has no intention of leaving.

Medicine for Melancholy premiered at SXSW 2008 on a Sunday afternoon. It was Jenkins’ first time attending a festival as a director, and he was nervous. Today, Medicine’s references to MySpace and affection for Bill Cosby classify it as a period piece, yet Jenkins’ ambition feels alive. His footage is almost — not quite — black and white, yet moments when the couple connect swell with color. You can see Jenkins and his college friends-turned-collaborators find their style … cinematographer James Laxton dipping his camera under waves of grass, a move he’d mimic in Moonlight when Mahershala Ali’s Juan teaches Chiron to swim, while editor Nat Sanders, who managed to finish the whole film in a month to make the SXSW deadline, gave it the rhythm of music.

 

Jenkins debut honored his new—and still—favorite film, Clare Denis’ one night stand examination Vendredi Soir. Audiences linked Medicine to Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore movement—films Jenkins admired without actually watching, for fear of poaching their style—and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Fair, but a scene where Micah and Jo wander into a meeting of San Francisco activists outraged at gentrification really has the documentary-style disorientation of Linklater’s breakout film, Slacker, which inked Austin’s permanent spot on the indie film map. The film critic for the Guardian was so annoyed by the real estate detour that he walked out. But when The New York Times’ A.O. Scott put Jenkins’ underdog on his top 10, and the IndieSpirit awards nominated him for Best First Feature, the then-29-year-old director was sure he’d be making his second film within two years.

It took him almost a decade, long enough for Jenkins to almost give up. He shot a few commercials, did carpentry work, wasted years developing projects that never happened: a time travel movie with a Stevie Wonder soundtrack, a cop flick, an adaptation of the memoir Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man. He wrote some TV, made a few shorts, uploaded other random clips like a short of him dancing with a mop just to stay creatively limber. What if he’d only had that single shot? There’s a beat in Medicine when Jo insists this isn’t true love, just a one night stand. “It’s only been one night,” counters Micah, “and even if it is …” His hope floats off untethered.

That’s the kind of optimism that gets a gold statuette in your hand even after the presenters mistakenly gave it to someone else. Since Moonlight, he has kept busy directing episodes of Dear White People and the upcoming Amazon miniseries on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad, and adapting the 2015 SXSW Olympic boxing documentary T-Rex into a feature for Universal. He even flew to Cannes where he met the filmmaker who has motivated him since college, or as he wrote on Twitter: “I JUST MET CLARE DENIS AND MAYBE GOT A LIL TEARY EYED.” Jenkins’ impulsive, meandering and suddenly magical career is impossible to duplicate. But his SXSW keynote address is guaranteed to inspire.

Barry Jenkins will be a Film Keynote Speaker at SXSW 2018. Stay tuned to schedule.sxsw.com for more details.

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