Barry Jenkins is at the forefront of contemporary cinema – alongside other Black film makers he is a pivotal figure in the integration and celebration of Black stories. From Medicine for Melancholy (2008) to If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Jenkins has always placed Black love at the heart of his films.
His most acclaimed film Moonlight (2016) is a queer coming of age story that follows Chiron through his turbulent and volatile childhood in the impoverished Liberty City district of Miami. The film’s success lies in its ability to be both specific and universal. It touches on a collection of issues such as sexuality, adolescence, identity, and Black masculinity – issues that often fail to be depicted in Black Hollywood. Moonlight’s Academy award success took it from a low-budget art house film to a household name overnight. The success is distinct when you consider the Academy’s legacy of awarding white, heterosexual films, and it set a precedent for awarding diversity in western cinema.
…his philosophy has always been clear; films which centre love stories of people of colour
Jenkins states he always knew his voice was going to distinguish him, and that coming to Hollywood he “felt like an immigrant on foreign shores.”. Citing his biggest influence as French film-maker Claire Denis, Jenkins places himself in a European cosmopolitan cinematic tradition. His interaction with and inspiration from international cinema, discerns him from other film makers. Jenkins’ consideration of cultural artefacts outside his everyday experience, has allowed him to value his own experience as being a poor Black boy from Miami, and recognise that it has provided him with a distinct creative perspective.
From his first student film, My Josephine (2003), his philosophy has always been clear; films which centre love stories of people of colour. His first feature film Medicine for Melancholy (2008) continues this narrative, and was the beginning of his collaborative career with cinematographer James Laxton.
Love is a prominent motif throughout his work and Jenkins claims: “we need to see more Black love stories”
Following an eight-year hiatus from film-making, Jenkins’ co-wrote and directed Moonlight. The films cinematic inspirations are clear depictions of Jenkins’ dedication to film, with auteurs Lynne Ramsay and Wong Kar-Wai being cited as his main influences. Moonlight was also his first collaboration with composer Nicholas Britell, and the score is crucial to the subtlety with which Jenkins is able to tell this tale. The importance of this film is that it diverges from the racial status-quo of coming of age stories, telling the tale of a Black, queer, working class teenager navigating adolescence during the US crack epidemic of the 1980s. The sensitivity and integrity with which Jenkins tells this story is important because it ignores typical cinematic conventions of Black trauma-porn and the sentimentalising Black pain, as well as the overrun narrative of tragic queer love stories.
Jenkins’ subsequent film If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), is a biopic of James Baldwin’s novel by the same name that explores the intersection of racism and the prison system with a Black love story. Love is a prominent motif throughout his work and Jenkins claims: “we need to see more Black love stories.”
When you consider Hollywood’s predilection for centering Black stories around pain and tragedy, it strengths Jenkins’ work, highlighting how Black audiences are starved of representation within films of this nature. The cinematography and score are fundamental in effectively telling this tale. The use of bold primary colours by Laxton is reminiscent of the work of Jacques Remy, and Britell’s melancholic score creates an intimate sensitivity.
The co-founding of Pastel Productions has seen Jenkins divaricate into producing, which he says he prefers to directing. The aim of the company is to tell stories that often go unmade by the industry. At present Jenkins is in production for his upcoming series The Underground Railroad, and has recently been announced as director of the live-action sequel to The Lion King (2019).
This forces us to consider the impact more black creatives could have on the film industry if given the opportunity to tell their stories
Through observation of Jenkins’ filmography his creative philosophy is clear; to tell Black American love stories. Film makers such as that of Jenkins are crucial in enabling the diversification and integration of Black stories into Hollywood.
In 2017, a year when the top two best picture contenders couldn’t have been more different, it is crucial to recognise that Moonlight’s win does not mean that racial injustice has ceased in the industry, as Jenkins’ expresses; “progress is a destination not a direction.” His success both critically and commercially is evident of his effectiveness as a storyteller. This forces us to consider the impact more black creatives could have on the film industry if given the opportunity to tell their stories.
For more content including news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.