STUDENT SHORTS (2003)
In 2017, Time released its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2). Among the usual assortment of entertainment personalities, politicians, and various thought leaders, one name would stand out as a particularly noteworthy inclusion: Barry Jenkins, an independent filmmaker who had recently won the Best Picture Oscar for his film, MOONLIGHT (2016)— only the second African-American director to do so in the Academy’s long history.
While his ethnicity is undoubtedly an important & inextricable element of his artistry and his worldview, it could be argued that his inclusion on Time’s list was due more to his individual significance within the media landscape. To me, Jenkins isn’t just a profoundly inspirational figure who launched himself from the microbudget realm to Oscar glory, he’s also wholly representative of ideals that the theatrical medium must adopt if it hopes to survive the 21st century.
Jenkins’ cinema seems to argue for a better path, where the insatiable quest for ever-higher box office returns and the cynical catering to the lowest-common denominator is replaced by a decentralized model that favors self-expression, empathy, and community-building. Indeed, his complete lack of ego and his palpable, non-competitive passion for the work of his contemporaries shines through in his work.
From his 2008 microbudget debut, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, to his recent streaming series THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, Jenkins’ work radiates compassion and love. To watch his work is to watch his empathy in action; we bear witness to a kind of unconditional love for his subjects not necessarily for who they are, but for who they have the potential to be.
Straddling the informal threshold that separates Generation X and the Millenials, Jenkins was born November 19, 1979 in Miami. He was the youngest of four children, none of whom shared the same father. His family life was anything but the nuclear ideal, with Jenkins forced to navigate a rocky relationship with a father who refused to believe the authenticity of his paternity and abandoned his mother during the pregnancy.
He grew up in an overcrowded apartment in the neighborhood of Liberty City, raised by an older woman who had looked after his own mother as a teenager. At twelve, his estranged father passed away, further isolating him within the world. Despite his hardscrabble origins, Jenkins would display his bright potential quite early.
While a student at Northwestern Senior High, he would demonstrate his inherent athleticism by running track and playing football. He also displayed an insatiable curiosity about art— specifically, cinema. He would continually raid the Foreign section of his neighborhood Blockbuster Video, gorging on French and Asian New Wave films in particular.
The sight of Quentin Tarantino on a VHS cover led to his larger discovery of Wong Kar-Wai’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS (his distribution company had brought the film to the States), which Jenkins would later credit as the “inciting event” that drove his decision to pursue filmmaking as a career.
The path to said career began in Tallahassee, where he enrolled at Florida State University’s College Of Motion Picture Arts. Jenkins thrived in this new environment, feasting on foundational texts like Walter Murch’s “In The Blink Of An Eye” and surrounding himself with like-minded people who would go on to become key creative partners— people like cinematographer James Laxton, producer Adele Romanski, and editors Nate Sanders and Joi McMillon.
This period would result in the production of Jenkins’ first serious works, a pair of shorts titled MY JOSEPHINE and LITTLE BROWN BOY (2003). Both films evidence Jenkins’ talent in its rawest form, with the growing pains that accompany the discovery of his voice’s particular contours.
Believe it or not, Jenkins’ career in filmmaking was almost over before it even began. At one point in his studies, he experienced a crisis of confidence so severe he took an entire year off. As he worked through his doubts about his own talent, he began to piece together the inspiration for the short he’d make upon his return.
He was struck with amusement by his roommate’s obsession with Napoleon Bonaparte, finding himself on the receiving end of a relentless stream of arcane trivia. At the same time, he was still processing his own personal response to the world-shattering events of September 11th two years earlier; more specifically, he was interested in the fortitude of the immigrant experience in America, resilient in the face of racist hostility that now flourished out in the open under the guise of “patriotism”.
Unlike the vast majority of student films that arise from a desire to emulate their makers’ favorite works, the short that Jenkins would come to call MY JOSEPHINE is the product of genuine self-expression; it is filmmaking as an act of empathy. In using the artistic process as a means to sympathize with a worldview drastically different from his own, he finds that he and his subjects are more alike than they are different— united by the universal emotions of love and heartache and the existential alienation of their “otherness”.
That Jenkins considers MY JOSEPHINE one his own favorite pieces to this day speaks to his refreshing lack of ego. Presented entirely in Arabic, MY JOSEPHINE would rekindle Jenkins’ faith in his artistic abilities via the embrace of his visual impulses. In other words, he doesn’t attempt to overly compose the image or find “the perfect shot”; the lyrical, expressionistic style that results is pure emotion and feeling.
Shot on 16mm film, the short roughs out a simple, yet evocative sketch about an Arab-American laundry store owner (Basel Hamdan) pining for his beautiful but standoffish employee (Saba Shariat). Jenkins and cinematographer James Lanton amplify the emotionality of their subtle narrative with a high-contrast, desaturated image awash in a teal tint.
They also employ a variety of camera techniques in a bid to capture the volatile interiority of the story’s protagonist: handheld camerawork and dolly movements set the stage for a continual struggle between passion and discipline, while overcranking, slippery rack-focusing, and even a spinning “tumble-dry” effect evoke the dizzying intoxication of unrequited love. Jenkins also employs an ambient orchestral score, the distorted qualities of which foreshadow the “chopped & screwed” approach of MOONLIGHT’s music.
MY JOSEPHINE derives its title from the eponymous historical figure— the great, one-sided love affair of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, and the one thing to remain out of reach of the man who otherwise would have everything. In transposing this framework onto the figure of a middle-class business owner, Jenkins reminds us that we are the world-changing figures of our own lives, our personal stories no less worthy of the grandness we ascribe to the major names of history.
However, MY JOSEPHINE achieves an even-more potent resonance in its narrative conceit of washing the American flag. In the years immediately following 9/11, laundry owners took to washing their customers’ American flags free of charge as a show of patriotism and solidarity. It shouldn’t be lost on us that, with the vast majority of these owners being minorities, these gestures of good faith and community-building were not frequently reciprocated.
Jenkins’ story reinforces the honorability of our immigrants— especially American Muslims, who endured no shortage of racist mistreatment as they were lumped together with a small band of extremists who did not share their values. This idea was born of Jenkins’ observation that in the modern South, being Muslim was “the new black”, but it also illuminates a more-universal truth: simply by being here, our immigrants are arguably our greatest patriots… working invisibly, behind the scenes, doing the thankless, unglamorous work of spit-polishing the American Dream.
That they don’t fit into the dominant white Anglo-Saxon paradigm speaks to the core of Jenkins’ artistic character, predicting the subsequent shape of his career as a tireless search for the dignity, beauty, and humanity of all people— and an insatiable desire and curiosity to tell the stories that mainstream American cinema will not.
LITTLE BROWN BOY
Also made in 2003, LITTLE BROWN BOY doubles down on Jenkins’ interest in stories from the edge of society. The short features DeQynn Gibson as CJ, a lonely & withdrawn boy who, given what we know about Jenkins’ own backstory, seems to share more than a few traits with his maker. He’s introduced in a rather shocking manner, witnessing a shooting during a heated argument at a basketball game and subsequently using the victim’s own handgun to dispassionately dispatch the original shooter.
This episode, however, seems to be a bit of venomous fantasy— a bitter projection of anger that’s been fostered by his solitary existence. Indeed, he seems to have no friends or family to speak of, save for a distant father who can’t be bothered to come to the phone when he calls. At 8 minutes long, LITTLE BROWN BOY is more of a tone poem than a full-blown narrative, with Jenkins content to simply follow CJ around the industrial fringes of town until the young boy discovers the unexpected beauty of ruins in an overgrown field.
Jenkins’ second student short reteams the burgeoning young filmmaker with his MY JOSEPHINE collaborators, cinematographer James Laxton and production designer Joi McMillon. The resulting style is expectedly similar to their first effort, albeit rendered entirely in high-contrast black and white.
The handheld camera is loose and restless, responding intuitively to action within the frame rather than imposing a particular style. Also like MY JOSEPHINE, a slippery, shallow depth of field continually searches for focus, echoing CJ’s tenuous grip on his surroundings. All this, combined with moments of CJ breaking the fourth wall to look directly into the lens, is highly reminiscent of early portions of MOONLIGHT— the short becomes, in retrospect, a proving ground for the later film’s animating ideas and unique tone, allowing Jenkins to test out a soulfully evocative style in a safe environment.
Despite his high-profile triumphs in recent years, Jenkins is quick to proclaim that he’s still as much of an amateur as he was during the time of these productions. What he’s really saying, though, is that he’s a perpetual student, and that seems to be the key to understanding his artistic nature. His steadfast refusal to believe his own hype has arguably made him one of the most likeable personalities in the industry.
Whereas other filmmakers of his stature tend to make grand proclamations, Jenkins uses his work to pose thoughtful questions. By actively inviting us into his artistic process, his inclusive worldview becomes all the more accessible and genuine.
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (2008)
While the 1990’s are often (and rightfully) regarded as a heyday for independent cinema, the late 2000’s saw the proliferation of truly indie films— a microbudget wave fostered by the rapid advancements of digital video, the rise of democratic digital exhibition formats like YouTube, and a do-it-yourself ethos that made almost any subject worth making a movie about. Soon enough, a distinct subgenre emerged: the mumblecore film.
Given critical legitimacy by tastemaking festivals like South By Southwest and Sundance as well as prominent distributors like IFC, this particular movement of American cinema is marked by a lo-fi digital aesthetic, and is mostly concerned with the low-stakes romantic exploits of upper middle-class (usually white) American twentysomethings.
Cornerstone works — Andrew Bujalski’s MUTUAL APPRECIATION, Aaron Katz’s QUIET CITY, Joe Swanberg’s HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS — were praised for their abundance of emotional authenticity and lack of melodramatic artifice, but to those more accustomed to a “polished” cinematic experience, these works were frequently derided as needless, boring, empty, even masturbatory (in Swanberg’s case, quite literally). The general sentiment is right there in the name, dismissing a whole swath of naturalistic characters as a generation of ineloquent and inarticulate mumblers.
Like the French New Wave before it, this particular movement isn’t for everyone — nothing that merits the designation of “art” ever is — but to deny it of cinematic “legitimacy” because it doesn’t conform to cultural expectations of mainstream filmed entertainment is a form of gatekeeping. All too often, the cost and resources required in making a Hollywood-caliber theatrical feature are used as a kind of cudgel to beat back the inevitable democratization of filmmaking.
By establishing a high barrier to entry, this approach works to ensure that the industry is controlled by the whims of an elite few. The entire concept of independent cinema has always challenged this ecosystem, but mumblecore — a subgenre nimble enough to be produced on four-figure budgets in their creators’ own apartments — stood as a particularly acute threat to the status quo.
The movement is more or less extinct now, having failed to catch on in the mainstream sense while its founding fathers (and mothers) have blossomed into mature filmmakers in command of higher budgets and more-polished resources.
Director Barry Jenkins’ debut feature, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, is a product of the same DIY ethos & by-any-means-necessary attitude that define the mumblecore movement, but its thematic sophistication and acute focus on social justice sets it apart. If films are a reflection of their creators, then mumblecore as a whole reflects a white, relatively-privileged and over-educated segment of the artistic population.
For all their individual charms, these films reinforce the unfortunate truth that the pursuit of art as a lifestyle is a luxury afforded primarily to those who don’t have to work for a living. In contrast, by the time Jenkins sat down to write MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY in 2006 (3), he had already cultivated a substantial resume out of sheer necessity.
Within a week of graduating from Florida State University, Jenkins had already moved out to Los Angeles to work his way up the professional ladder. For the first couple years, he worked as a production assistant, most notably as an assistant to the director for THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING (2005), produced by Oprah Winfrey’s production company Harpo Film. During this time, he also co-founded a full-service production and advertising company named Strike Anywhere, which still operates today..
Only two years later, Jenkins would move to San Francisco, having decided Los Angeles wasn’t the right fit for him. Though he was drawn to the Bay Area’s film community, he mostly limited his interactions to special repertory screenings while he worked in the office of a local political campaign. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY grew out of his fascination with San Francisco’s sociopolitical climate of gentrification and contentious racial assimilation, but found the inspiration for its narrative framework in the breakup of his first interracial relationship.
In processing his heartbreak, he came to see the episode as an opportunity ripe for dramatic exploration— and on a scale accessible enough for his limited resources. Produced on a minuscule budget of $13,000, the scrappy MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY makes up for its lack of technical polish with its fierce display of ambition and thematic conviction.
Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins headline as Micah and Jo, respectively— two Black San Franciscans brought together by their shared affection for alcohol, and yet have little else in common. After a night of partying, the two strangers wake up in bed together and begin the awkward process of navigating their newfound intimacy.
As they traverse the city, visiting coffee shops, museums and each other’s apartments, Jenkins frames their fumbling romance through the multifaceted prisms of race and class. Micah is a relatively sedate young man whose passions are fired up by political and racial agitations unique to San Francisco (but have since been snaking their way to other major metros).
Stung by a recent heartbreak, he’s further frustrated by the downwardly-mobile trajectory of Black San Francisco, already massively underrepresented in a majority-white city that’s only grown richer and whiter with the arrival of Big Tech and the artificially-inflated economy that follows.
He’s also frustrated by the need to “assimilate” his racial identity into the nascent hipsterdom of his generation. Conversely, Jo has seemingly shed herself of racial preoccupations in favor of an easygoing upper-middle-class lifestyle. While Micah pays his ever-increasing rent by installing aquariums, Jo’s worry-free lifestyle is subsidized by her white art-curator boyfriend, freeing her days up to focus on her passion for making t-shirts emblazoned with the names of female filmmakers.
Though her minimization of racial identity has allowed Jo’s personal individuality to flourish, Micah perceives this as nothing less than a complete abandonment. This all leads to a cold, lopsided chemistry— indeed, there isn’t much in the way of “romance”, let alone connection. In its place, Jenkins seems to be positioning his framework as a conduit for conversation about how these disparate viewpoints can harmonize towards a better realization of racial self within an oppressively homogenous environment.
Like so many indies of the mumblecore era, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY possesses a unique video look that has since been eclipsed by higher-quality formats. Though digital cameras that could approximate the qualities of celluloid existed, they remained out of reach for the budgets of most independent productions. As such, they used the cameras available to them: prosumer HD camcorders that could be bought off the shelf at Best Buy.
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY employs the Panasonic HVX200, a fixed-lens HD upgrade to their wildly-popular DVX200 model, which was one of the first digital cameras capable of recording at twenty-four frames a second. Jenkins recruits James Laxton — the cinematographer of his student shorts at FSU — to perform the same duties on his first feature, resulting in a striking 1.78:1 frame that turns the perceived shortcomings of the video format into narrative assets.
The most immediate aspect of MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s aesthetic is its lack of color: not purely monochromatic, but heavily desaturated to the point where otherwise-strong primary colors are extremely washed out and dull. The peculiar look plays directly into Jenkins’ thematic interests, dialed back in post by editor Nat Sanders to 7% color saturation— a visual reflection of the fact that African Americans make up only 7% of San Francisco’s population.
Indeed, the only moment where Jenkins allows his image to achieve full color saturation is a short sequence shot on Super 8mm film, meant to evoke the aspects of San Francisco that evoke Micah’s affection rather than his scorn.
Because the lens was fixed to the body and couldn’t be swapped out for different glass, this generation of digital cameras limited filmmakers’ ability to fully shape the contours of their image. A few aftermarket solutions were available that offered an advanced degree of fine tuning, like the popular Red Rock line of adaptors that softened the harsh lines of video while simulating a shallow depth of field to better approximate the look of film.
Such a look present throughout MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY suggests Jenkins and Laxton took advantage of this option, which also results in a rather interesting side effect: a visible vibration at the frame’s edges, as if the focal plane was hanging on for dear life in terms of retaining its clarity. This could be considered an aberration or a defect, but it subtly reinforces the roiling tensions that course underneath Jenkins’ narrative.
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY makes no further effort to impose a deliberate “style”, arguably a reflection of the filmmakers’ attempt to simply capture the desired image quickly with whatever resources were at hand. As such, the camerawork toggles between handheld setups, locked-off compositions, and stabilized tracking moves with little in the way of aesthetic consideration besides whatever method was best to quickly and effectively capture the shot in question.
This is not to say the end result is unprofessional or chaotic; it simply speaks to the practicalities of independent production at a scale such as theirs, in which success lies in maintaining as small a production footprint as possible.
What the film lacks in technical flourish, it makes up for in an energetic mix of musical tracks that convey an idiosyncratic “cool-kid” character. Beginning with “New Year’s Kiss”, a downbeat indie pop number by Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s soundtrack incorporates a variety of under-the-radar pop songs and electro beats to underscore Micah and Jo’s offbeat romance. In the aggregate, the musical sound is decidedly “hipster”— that is, a distinct cooler-than-thou attitude that lies at the convergence between tastemaking anticipation and esoteric indulgence.
A more mainstream-minded (if reductive) approach might have leaned into hip-hop and R&B tracks to signal the protagonists’ racial identity, but a gifted storyteller such as Jenkins realizes the metatextual opportunity in “counterprogramming” his music. His usage of a musical milieu characterized by a predominantly-white fanbase of privileged, creativity-minded college kids & young adults becomes a metaphor for the overwhelming gentrification of San Francisco and the co-opting of working-class aesthetics.
To place two Black protagonists into this environment is to reinforce the friction they feel against it— they stand out because they don’t quite fit. Their inherent incongruity makes true assimilation impossible, and makes their attempts all the more contrived and deleterious. The more they try to blend in with their surroundings, the more they lose their unique character.
This approach extends beyond the music, to the narrative thematic of the film as a whole. The spectre of gentrification looms large over Jenkins’ story, becoming a conduit through which he can explore the tribulations of the contemporary Black experience in America. A centerpiece sequence sees Micah and Jo briefly cede center stage to listen in on a community meeting, rendered in an observational, documentary-style manner. Jenkins uses real people, not actors, simply letting them vent their frustrations about ballooning rents and the existential trauma of being pushed out of their own community.
As the seat of power for the Big Tech giants that wield so much influence over our daily lives, San Francisco’s housing market has become artificially and unsustainably inflated by a perversion of the supply & demand fundamentals. The absurdly-high market valuation of companies like Facebook and Twitter have created a new kind of Gold Rush for the twenty-first century, attracting an endless stream of very-well-compensated workers who subsequently pay top-dollar for the precious commodity that is the city’s housing stock.
Slowly but surely, authentic & colorful neighborhoods like the Castro, the Mission District, or Haight-Ashbury are replaced by a homogenous populace and the artifacts of a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. These powerful market forces, then, become oppressive to members of the minority or the working-class; an insidious ecosystem that privileges the elite few while dispassionately dismissing those who can’t succeed within it as “not ambitious enough”.
In making MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, however, Jenkins doesn’t set out to burn down the system; he’s more interested in fostering our empathy for those who are slipping through the cracks. Rather than use his art to shame or alienate the majority, Jenkins’ compulsions as an inclusive filmmaker instead invites them to pull the scales from their eyes— to bear witness to the fact that capitalism is ultimately zero-sum game, and there is always someone who has to have lost something (or everything) for every economic gain.
The unconventional nature of the film’s central love story further establishes Jenkins’s emphasis on empathy. Though their initial connection is driven by (drunken) amorousness, the cold light of sobriety reveals them to be ultimately incompatible. They’re barely friends, let alone lovers. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, then, becomes a portrait of two lonely souls struggling to empathize with each other; to find the kernel of connection that they can build a relationship upon.
That it ultimately isn’t there doesn’t mean they haven’t touched each other on an emotional level; indeed, they each come away with a fresh perspective on the complicated nature of the city they call home. The profound empathy that distinguishes the film prevents Jenkins’ voice from becoming too angry about the story’s political preoccupations; it’s less of a condemnation than it is a pointed critique— a compassionate confrontation that’s ready to ask hard questions and, perhaps more importantly, is ready to listen.
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY was released at arguably the apex of the mumblecore wave, during the brief window of time where a homegrown feature with no stars could secure a coveted screening slot at prestigious festivals like South By Southwest and Toronto. After playing in both, Jenkins’ feature-length debut was acquired and released by IFC. Though it was (and still is) criminally unwatched at a mainstream level, it nonetheless made a splash among indie enthusiasts proactive enough to read its many positive reviews.
The traction wasn’t enough to immediately launch Jenkins into a high-profile directing career, but the film’s quiet strengths would translate to a decent number of fervent admirers (this particular writer being among them). Some of them would be in high places, in a position to help him climb the precarious ladder towards higher scales of production.
For Jenkins, however, this particular ladder would be 8 years tall— he was about to enter a kind of limbo period, marked by scattered output but increased entrenchment within esteemed film circles. By the time he was ready to make his follow-up, he would be in a much stronger position to realize his vision, his convictions reinforced by the fortitude of life experience.
SHORT FILMS (2009-2012)
The story of director Barry Jenkins’ rise from shoestring indie darling to Oscar winner is nothing short of remarkable. At a surface level, the narrative would seem that Jenkins earned himself a modest breakout on the festival circuit with 2008’s MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, only to fall into silence for eight long years.
When he re-emerged with MOONLIGHT, 2016’s Best Picture recipient at the Academy Awards, it was clear that he had made a quantum leap forward in resources, skill, and talent— all without the benefit of intervening work that built him up little by little. The actual story of what happened during this overlong sabbatical from feature filmmaking is one that many other breakout directors know all too well… although theirs tended to end a little differently.
Jenkins certainly didn’t spend the better part of a decade sitting around idly, waiting for his next big chance. He was active and engaged, albeit in a less visible capacity as a writer. He wrote several scripts for various studios, including an apparent epic about Stevie Wonder and time travel for Focus Features, and an adaptation of Bill Clegg’s memoir PORTRAIT OF THE ADDICT AS A YOUNG MAN.
He also adapted James Baldwin’s novel IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, which would ultimately become his follow-up to MOONLIGHT many years later. At one point, he was even staffed as a writer on HBO’s hit television show, THE LEFTOVERS, although he’s quick to admit he “didn’t get to do much”.
Indeed, maybe the most interesting paid gigs that Jenkins took on during this time had nothing to do with film at all. Working as a carpenter, Jenkins could apply his exquisite sense of craftsmanship towards something more physical and lasting than cinema. Being from a Catholic background, I find this personally interesting for its parallels to Jesus’ work in the same occupation, especially when juxtaposed against the sentiment of a critic on Twitter (I wish I could remember who) who wrote something along that lines that Jenkins’ camera feels like “God looking with unconditional love upon his flawed creations”.
The throughline here is compassion, and it is a fundamental component of Jenkins’ artistry, sustaining him through the darkest patches of his journey.
Thankfully, the medium of short-form cinema always remained an option to express himself with a camera, and Jenkins indulged in the opportunity several times during this period. From 2009-2012, the production of several short films would find Jenkins developing and exploring his voice, honing in on a set of core, animating themes like racial identity, gentrification, and of course, compassion.
The films that would spring forth from this period collectively demonstrate an insatiable creative curiosity and an eagerness to grow and experiment with different aesthetic styles.
A YOUNG COUPLE (2009)
The first short from this period, A YOUNG COUPLE, closely resembles MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY in its lo-fi portrait of a twentysomething urban couple in San Francisco. The piece, filmed over two hours on a day in late January of 2009, is presented as something of a birthday gift for a “Katrina”— likely a onetime romantic partner given the short’s subject matter.
Shot by MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s cinematographer James Laxton on fuzzy digital video matted to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, A YOUNG COUPLE combines documentary techniques with impressionistic compositions; Jenkins, sitting just out of frame, asks the couple various questions about their relationship, while the couple themselves are seen via window reflections, observational static shots, and unconventional closeups that emphasize the landscape of their facial features in a manner reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966).
The implied elegance of a plodding jazz track and a string composition is juxtaposed against the rough visual presentation, which slathers a heavy sepia coating over images that struggles to resolve focus— an unfortunate shortcoming of some consumer video cameras from the era. Jenkins’ own artistic preoccupations arise rather naturally, from his choosing of a subject couple from San Francisco’s creative class to his adoption of a storytelling template that allows him to organically probe for points of empathetic connection to his own life and experience.
Jenkins seems content to have consigned the piece to the graveyard of early internet video, hosting it on his personal Vimeo account in a somewhat “unlisted” privacy designation. One wouldn’t find it by accessing his page alone, but the piece can be seen as an embedded video on the website Director’s Library.
TALL ENOUGH (2009)
In the wake of YouTube’s creation and the sudden popularity of internet video, corporations sought to capitalize on its perceived potential as a potent marketing tool beyond the constraints of conventional, televised commercials; something more organic and creative. This fusion of short film and advertisement would come to be known as “branded content”, and it would become a regular forum for filmmakers to indulge in creative pursuits while getting paid for it.
In 2009, the department chain Bloomingdale’s launched a prescient initiative, recruiting five emerging filmmakers to create fashion-adjacent shorts— one of whom would be chosen by audiences to attend the Independent Spirit Awards. Jenkins’ contribution, TALL ENOUGH, plays like a better-budgeted riff on A YOUNG COUPLE in its portrait of a mixed-race urban couple.
Produced through his ad company Strike Anywhere and lensed by cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra on digital video in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Jenkins once again utilizes documentary-style testimonials from his subject couple— this time against a blank, white cyc as backdrop. The tone of these testimonials is somewhat off… almost as if they were scripted. These are not actors, however, and it seems that their on-screen musings are a combination of authentic testimony and specific prompts from Jenkins for dramatic effect.
The handheld camerawork, which seems to wander in search of something for its shallow focus plane to latch on to, speaks to Jenkins’ uniquely sensual brand of filmmaking. He seems to use his filmmaking as an opportunity to answer the question of how one can convey the tactility of touch in a primarily visual medium.
TALL ENOUGH focuses on the act of touching itself, conjuring up closeups of hands covering eyes, or drifting across the length of an arm. He uses visual representations of texture — creamy skin, soft fabric, etc. — as a means to evoke a sense memory response from his audience, the restless camerawork moving in parallel to our own roving gaze during private, stolen moments with our romantic companions. Combined with its vignettes of the couple juxtaposed against the buzz of city life, TALL ENOUGH lays the foundation for the visceral sense of visual intimacy that would come to define Jenkins’ artistic character.
FUTURESTATES: REMIGRATION (2011)
Easily the high mark of Jenkins’ extended short-form period, REMIGRATION sees Jenkins at his most visually imaginative, spinning a futuristic San Francisco out of extremely limited resources while deploying the trappings of science fiction in service to urgent socio-political matters. The nineteen minute piece, part of a larger video project by ITVS called FUTURESTATES, imagines a future in which the wealthy elite denizens of San Francisco have triumphed in a war of gentrification, having pushed out all of the blue collar working population.
Russel Hornsby and Paola Mendoza play Kaya and Helen, an interracial married couple living out in the country with their young daughter Naomi, who has a significant but undefined health issue. Their yearnings to return to the city they once called home are given the possibility of real hope when a pair of agents from San Francisco’s upstart Remigration Program show up at his doorstep with a fateful proposition: relocate back as participants in an experimental pilot program that would house them while they work to support and maintain the complicated infrastructure of a hyper-globalized — and hyper-rich — metropolis.
REMIGRATION finds Jenkins working for the first time with an actor of some renown: Rick Yune, who played memorable antagonistic roles in both THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001) and DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002), displays an underutilized charisma that makes an argument for more leading roles in the future.
As Remigration agent Jonathan Park, Yune’s quietly authoritative performance anchors Jenkins’ resourceful visuals with a sense of weight and gravitas. James Laxton returns as cinematographer, crafting a 2.35:1 digital image slathered in a saffron color cast. Lens flares continually invade our line of sight, creating the sensation of a future that’s a little too bright to look at directly.
Elliptical editing complements naturalistic camera work, which combines handheld setups with formalistic dolly moves. Composer Keegan Dewitt, a mainstay in the wave of homegrown “mumblecore” indies that dominated the decade and who has since carved out a formidable career for himself in high-profile films and prestige TV, creates a spare, elegiac score out of subdued strings and piano chords.
Two distinct elements place REMIGRATION as a kind of transitory work for Jenkins, caught midway between the scrappy microbudget filmmaker of MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY and the assured, well-funded voice of MOONLIGHT. Like one of the former’s most memorable sequences, REMIGRATION employs a documentary approach for a centerpiece scene, whip-panning and rack-focusing between various working-class subjects being interviewed about their own desires to return to their beloved San Francisco.
Jenkins interweaves this seamlessly with his narrative by placing similar testimonials from Kaya and Helen, and in the process, conveys REMIGRATION’s most resonant conceit: the socio-economic issue that drives the story isn’t happening in some fantastical future, it’s actually happening right now. Conversely, Jenkins frequently places his characters in the center of the frame, looking directly into the lens as they deliver dialogue. This creates an inclusive sensation, drawing the audience more directly into the narrative— a technique that would grow into a visual hallmark of Jenkins’ later work.
REMIGRATION provides ample space for Jenkins’ other pet themes, such as gentrification, class conflict and male vulnerability, each of which acquire additional resonance via the application of genre (horror and science fiction are particularly adept at communicating our collective anxieties). Jenkins’ narrative provides a compelling setup— so much so that it feels almost like a wasted opportunity to leave it in the realm of short-form. Indeed, there seems to be a tremendous amount of unrealized potential in the premise; here’s hoping that Jenkins is compelled one day to revisit the story in a feature context.
Of all Jenkins’ work from this period, his 2011 short CLOROPHYL might be the dark horse contender for his most consequential piece. One can see shades of MOONLIGHT in its impressionistic, yet grounded compositions and its dreamy Miami setting. Shot on high definition video by cinematographer David Bornfriend — likely on a compact DSLR setup — CLOROPHYL is a short narrative piece commissioned by Borsch, an outfit founded by Jenkins’ fellow FSU alumnus Andrew Havia. After the release of MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, Havia tracked Jenkins down to create a spiritual sequel of sorts, set in their shared hometown of Miami.
More than anything, CLOROPHYL stands as a low-key but profoundly resonant example of regionalism— an artistic movementI hadn’t known about until recently, but always sensed an ill-defined but personal connection to. Regionalism, as defined by Havia himself, promotes an authentic depiction of setting by placing the story in the broader socio-political narrative of its environment, combined with the familiarity that only comes from inhabiting said place for a significant period of time.
The story roughs a sketch of a young Latina (played by Ana Laura Treviño) living a somewhat dislocated existence in her own city. She lives in a blandly upscale condominium tower built atop the rubble of a former low-income neighborhood— a kind of “non-place” that promotes a dreamy detachment. Apart from a somnambulant gathering with her indistinctive but similarly-well-off friends, her social interactions are detached, occurring over phone calls and across a crowded bar as she spots the man she thought was her lover out with another woman.
The piece takes its name from a framing device divulged in a Spanish voiceover, using the natural life cycle of plant life as a metaphor for constant change. Indeed, “change” is the core idea at play here, with Jenkins and company examining the sociological ramifications of Miami’s runaway gentrification.
The searching focus that characterizes Jenkins’ camera roams over glitzy new high rises and entire sections of the city that hadn’t existed at all only a few years prior. Returning to his hometown after several years in California, Jenkins is able to portray Miami with the familiarity of a native while simultaneously expressing the alien nature of its growth in his absence.
The sensation lends itself to dreamlike imagery, finding the woman riding a scooter down broad, empty avenues lined with glamorous high rises or ensconced within a curtain of milky polarized glass that turns swaying palm trees into a kind of abstract landscape. All the while, he looks upon these disaffected characters with compassion, not pity… feeling for their sense of isolation in a rapidly-anonymizing and homogenizing urban environment.
KING’S GYM (2012)
Clocking in at a scant three minutes, KING’S GYM (2012) is a compact, wordless vignette about aspiring boxers training at a local Bay Area gym. Set to the elegiac piano chords of composer Paul Cantelon’s theme from the Julian Schnabel film THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (2007), Jenkins’ searching, handheld camera snatches the poetry in the mundane, juxtaposing a variety of men perfecting their technique and honing their bodies, all while surrounded by dead heroes emblazoned on the flyers from title fights of yesteryear that paper the walls.
A more cynical filmmaker might have titled this piece BEAUTIFUL MEATHEADS, but Jenkins nevertheless finds compassion and empathy in his portraiture of men who are nothing like him— a mild-mannered, bespectacled intellectual in a cozy sweater.
The piece was shot on a digital cinema camera, and it shows— each shot is polished and inherently cinematic, capturing the industrial gym’s yellowed walls with a tactile beauty. The shallow focus plane searches for (and finds) little moments of visual poetry, which Cantelon’s pre-existing cue certainly amplifies. Slight as it may be, KING’S GYM nevertheless spins a different take on a well-worn image in the cinematic medium, underscoring the humanity inherent in ambition, aspiration, and discipline.
Despite accumulating significant momentum, even receiving a United States Artists Fellowship Grant in 2012 , Jenkins apparently couldn’t help feeling that he was spinning his wheels. His 37th year was fast approaching, his forties looming even larger on the horizon. Every year he let pass without a new feature-length endeavor was a deeply-felt loss; entire days, weeks and months were dragged down by the conviction that he’d never make another movie again. Scaled-back ambitions of a career in television writing and commercial directing sustained him through the roughest patches. But here’s the funny thing about genuine people with superlative talents: the less discouraged they may become about themselves, the more others tend to believe in them— and the more readily they stand to move mountains to see them realize their potential.
It’s rare that the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture is actually awarded to a film that truly merits the honor. Just as we look to box office dominance as a major (if mistaken) barometer of a film’s quality, the desire to declare a definitive “winner” is so deeply-rooted in the competitive nature of American cinema that we easily forget the Best Picture award is meant to honor the craft of producing— not whether a film is the objective “best”. This is why mismatches between the Best Picture winner and the Best Director winner occur with such frequency. The nuance of the category has been lost —or, perhaps, intentionally ignored — over the years, along with the perception of prestige it promises to bear. It’s not uncommon to completely forget which film was selected on a given year, sometimes not even twelve months on from its win.
The circumstances of MOONLIGHT’s win at the 2017 Academy Awards have ensured that its shocking victory won’t soon be forgotten. Critics immediately hailed director Barry Jenkins’ long-delayed follow up to MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (2008) as an important work and one of the very finest releases of 2016, but its bid for Oscar consideration faced stiff competition from Damien Chazelle’s lavish throwback musical, LA LA LAND— the kind of richly-budgeted, affectionate ode to Old Hollywood so often showered with praise by Academy voters. As Oscar night unfolded, the narrative of LA LA LAND’s inevitable win seemed all but written in stone,, culminating in Chazelle’s win for Best Director. When Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty took the stage to announce LA LA LAND as the recipient of the Best Picture prize, the night was over… until suddenly, it wasn’t. I had read an article earlier in the day about the statistical impossibility of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the professional services firm tasked with tabulating the voting results and delivering them to presenters, accidentally announcing the wrong winner; the memory of the article had briefly crossed my mind as Dunaway and Beatty opened the envelope, so when LA LA LAND producer Jordan Horowitz interrupted the victory speech to announce that there had been a massive mistake and that MOONLIGHT was the actual winner, it was like slipping into an alternate timeline.
MOONLIGHT’s Oscar surprise was, in every sense of the word, historic. Even without the eleventh-hour plot twist, its inclusion into what is supposedly a canon of special films to be cherished through the generations would be groundbreaking on the merits of being the first Best Picture winner to feature an all-black cast and LGBTQ subject matter. As influential independent films often do, MOONLIGHT seemed to come out of nowhere— a crackling lightning bolt that formed in the blink of an eye to strike at the core of the zeitgeist. The reality was far less dramatic, encompassing a thirteen year slog wherein the material was steadily developed and reworked while its creators’ jockeyed their respective careers into better position. MOONLIGHT began life as an unpublished stage play by Miami-based playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney, written in 2003 as an expression of his personal struggles in the wake of his mother’s death from AIDS, only to be thrown into the proverbial drawer for the subsequent decade. Titled “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue”, the play eventually caught the attention of the Miami-based arts collective Borscht, who commissioned the creation of Jenkins’ short film CLOROPHYL in 2011.
Independently, Jenkins had been searching for material from which to craft his sophomore feature, growing increasingly despondent as the years passed with no long-form project to show for it. The extent of any development towards this end consisted of a few prompts & prods buried in his Gchat log with Adele Romanski, a producer he knew from back in his FSU days and who had married James Laxton, his regular cinematographer. His eventual collaboration with Borscht on CLOROPHYL, then, would prove surprisingly consequential: it was during production of that film that Jenkins was introduced to McCraney’s unpublished play and immediately recognized a profound personal connection to the material. Though Jenkins couldn’t fully identify with McCraney’s dramatic meditation on the compounded perils of growing up gay and Black, this fellow son of Miami nevertheless could sympathize with the struggle to recognize and assert one’s identity in an inhospitable environment. It was from this perspective as an ally that Jenkins adapted McCraney’s play into a film script during a trip to Brussels.
Jenkins’ success on the festival circuit with MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY had provided him with a prestigious gig judging and moderating Q&A’s for films selected to screen at the Telluride Film Festival, where he would find himself in 2013 as the moderator fielding questions for director Steve McQueen following a screening of his eventual Best Picture winner, 12 YEARS A SLAVE. That film had been produced by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment, who had also met with Jenkins following MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s release. In casual conversation following that Q&A, Plan B head Dede Gardner and other executives asked what Jenkins had been working on recently; little did they know he was about to pitch them their next Oscar winner for Best Picture.
While we can’t know how exactly Jenkins pitched MOONLIGHT without talking to the man directly, it’s a safe bet that a key factor in both Plan B’s coming aboard so quickly and distributor A24’s decision to finance and actively produce for the first time lay in the deeply humanistic perspective that Jenkins and McCraney bring to the story of a young Black man in Miami coming to terms with his sexuality over a span of fifteen years. Both McCraney’s stage play and Jenkins’ subsequent screenplay fragment the narrative into three distinct parts that confer a different name on the protagonist as a means to separate his most formative phases: his childhood (Little), adolescence (Chiron), and adulthood (Black). Where source material and adaptation diverge, however, is in their presentation: McCraney’s play called for the three chapters to unfold concurrently, ostensibly to create the perception of three distinct characters only to ultimately reveal that they are the same person. Jenkins would choose a traditional — but no less effective — route, presenting them separately in chronological order. Far from a simplistic choice, Jenkins reportedly drew inspiration from a similar structure found in Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s “Three Times” (2005), using the opportunity of a fragmented narrative and the necessity of casting three very different actors portraying a single protagonist at various ages to convey how one’s environment can induce actual, physical change in response. This narrative idea is easily MOONLIGHT’s most subtle on an intellectual level, but it carries a visceral subconscious message about the larger forces that shape our identities in ways far beyond our control.
The first fragment introduces us to a small boy affectionately nicknamed Little, played by Alex R. Hibbert as a quiet, wide-eyed latchkey kid whose sexuality hasn’t even come into the equation yet, and yet he’s already being antagonized by his peers for a perceived “otherness”. He’s not like the other boys; it’s obvious in “the way he walks”— an observation made by Noamie Harris’ Paula, the self-loathing mother to Little, to Mahershala Ali’s Juan, the neighborhood drug dealer who feels an unexpected compassion for the little man. Harris, Ali, and recording artist Janelle Monaé are easily the biggest names in MOONLIGHT, leaving tremendous impressions despite scant screen time (Ali only appears in the first chapter, and Harris squeezed her entire performance into three shooting days). In playing a character whose helpless addiction to crack causes her to spiral from a respectable occupation in nursing to a lifetime of debasing herself in pursuit of diminishing highs, Harris was reportedly reluctant to even take on a role that trafficked so heavily in ubiquitous stereotypes. However, upon learning that both McCraney and Jenkins’ take on Paula was informed by his experience with his own mother, she was able to channel a three-dimensional pathos that invites our pity and our scorn in equal measure. Ali would go on to become the first actor of Muslim faith to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Juan, drawing out the inherent humanity in a character that lesser films would reduce to caricature or stock archetypes. Juan, an African-Cuban immigrant trying his hand at the American Dream, becomes an unexpected father figure to Little just as Paula’s effectiveness as a parent starts to unravel.
Monaé’s Teresa, live-in partner to Juan, subsequently becomes a warm substitute to Paula’s growing hostilities. She follows Little where Juan can’t — into MOONLIGHT’s second fragment, which documents a formative episode from the boy’s gangly teenage years. Not so little anymore, he’s dropped the childhood nickname in favor of his given one, Chiron. Monaé, with her otherworldly grace and warm elegance, strikes a stark contrast to the dumpster fire that is Paula, pinned down at the rock bottom of her addiction. Chiron, played here by Ashton Sanders, finds himself bouncing between these opposing maternal forces while trying to figure out what it really means to embrace his masculinity (and by extension, the realization that he’s attracted to other men). The centerpiece scene in this fragment (and arguably the entire film) is a moonlit encounter between Chiron and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), wherein both boys surrender their performative masculinity to their true feelings; a brief acknowledgment of each other’s humanity before their guard must come back up at daybreak, and the cycle of casual cruelties begins anew.
The third fragment picks up some years later in Atlanta, where Chiron is making a decent — if illegitimate — living as a drug dealer. As played by Trevante Rhodes, this Chiron is unrecognizable from his previous two iterations, having bulked up to an intimidating physicality while obscuring his charming smile behind a chunky gold grill. He goes by the name of Black now, a nickname affectionately given to him by Kevin in Part 2 that is now the last remaining vestige of the boy he used to be. Jenkins structures this third act as a double reunion, with Black being lured back to Miami by an unexpected phone call from Kevin, now an ex-con working as a cook at a quiet neighborhood diner. Along the way, he visits Paula at her rehabilitation clinic to seek an uneasy peace. André Holland delivers a memorably inviting performance as the adult Kevin, who has mellowed out after his time in prison and wishes to reconnect with Black after their moonlit rendezvous all those years ago. Black hasn’t touched anyone — let alone another man — since, having subsumed any sense of an inner sexual life in favor of a caricature of the person he thinks the world wants him to be. In finally reconnecting with Kevin, Black realizes the truth that his environment had worked so hard all his life to obscure: that he is a person worthy of love, and that true self-realization means embracing vulnerability rather than rejecting it.
MOONLIGHT’s unique aesthetic endeavors to construct a visual representation of a “beautiful nightmare”, a phrase used by Jenkins to describe Miami’s particular combination of sun-dappled lushness and outsized class disparity. Working once again with his regular cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins uses an economic, yet stylish, approach to show audiences a different side of Miami. Far from MIAMI VICE’s glittering cityscapes or SCARFACE’s opulent neoclassical mansions, Jenkins’ Miami sees a canopy of palm trees hang over the pastel housing projects of Liberty Square, the rough-and-tumble neighborhood where Jenkins grew up. Despite going so far as to even include members of the local population as cast members, Jenkins deliberately avoids the “documentary” approach undertaken by so many contemporary indie dramas. Instead, he and Laxton adopt a classical, romantic approach more in line with Wong Kar-Wai’s gorgeous portraits of heartache and longing. Framing in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the filmmakers soften the crisp lines rendered by the 2K Arri Alexa XT Plus sensor with vintage Hawk and Angenieux lenses. The 35mm and 65mm primes would emerge as their preferred focal lengths, creating a dreamy, romantic bokeh wherein the background dissolves into an impressionistic, circular smear.
Laxton further works towards Jenkins’ vision with a considered approach to light, color, and movement. There’s a diffuse, white quality to MOONLIGHT’s daylight, rendering a buttery palette of color without being too overly saturated. Befitting a locale that’s usually soaked in sunlight, Laxton opts to expose the image with a high contrast ratio, oftentimes illuminating his subjects with a single source of light and no fill. In the color correction suite, Jenkins and Laxton further manipulated their 2K digital intermediate by adding a blue tinge to their blacks, while giving each story fragment its own subtle look meant to emulate the chromatic qualities of different film stocks. Little’s segment endeavors to replicate Fuji’s distinctive rendering of skin tones, while Chiron’s emphasizes cyan colors in a manner reminiscent of an old German stock manufactured by Afga. If Black’s segment seems more vivid than the preceding two, it’s because it draws inspiration from a modified Kodak stock that adds an exaggerated “pop” to color. Laxton’ s camerawork imbues an organic fluidity into Jenkins’ storytelling with handheld and Steadicam movements in select moments, such as an opening shot that tracks Juan’s pathway around the neighborhood as he makes the rounds to his dealers on the block, inadvertently crossing paths with Little for the first time.
Jenkins pairs MOONLIGHT’s dreamy cinematography with a gorgeous, thematically-rich score from composer Nicholas Britell, who follows his director’s attempts to bridge the divide between the “arthouse” picture and “hood” sub genres by fusing an orchestral score with the rhythms and traditions of hip-hop. He begins with a central theme arranged for strings, which is intensely melancholic and suffused with pathos. While perceptibly simple in melody, the piece is highly flexible; Britell can complicate it with added orchestral elements as the story demands, or he can deconstruct it by breaking apart its various elements and processing them into samples or loops. This practice is referred to as “chopped & screwed” by southern hip-hop artists, and Jenkins and Britell employ it throughout MOONLIGHT to evoke the inner conflict that roils Chiron’s beautiful soul. Often sounding like an orchestra tuning up or breaking down entirely, Britell constructs the musical equivalent of chasing an elusive inner harmony. He even samples sound effects from prior scenes, like the soft “clap” of a handshake between Chiron and Kevin, subsequently processing it and transforming it into a percussive or rhythmic element. The overall approach is one of building outwards from the starting point of character, reflected even in an eclectic mix of needle drops that range from classical compositions to vintage R&B, hip-hop and trap— all of which work to evoke a sort of “sense memory” on the part of Chiron; in other words, music as another part of the environment making a physical impact on our protagonist.
With his three features to date, Jenkins’ primary artistic interest in Black identity is made plainly evident, but his overpowering sense of empathy & compassion separates him from similarly-minded directors. MOONLIGHT follows MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY in exploring identity through the lens of sexuality and masculinity. McCraney’s source material stages Chiron’s search for self against the backdrop of the “hood” culture so prevalent in low-income and impoverished communities, fueled by a compelling observation: in such communities, where power and privilege are in short supply and patriarchal ideals inform the bedrock of social structure, men tend to emphasize their masculinity in exaggerated manners as a way of asserting more power for themselves. This adds another layer of conflict atop Chiron’s struggles, creating an oppressive environment that’s almost sentient in its attempts to suppress a noncomforming identity. It’s also what allows Jenkins, a straight man, to successfully make that empathic leap and convincingly depict Chiron’s emerging homosexuality. Indeed, the larger prism of humanity — more so than sexuality — informs his storytelling. MOONLIGHT’s Miami is Jenkins’ Miami; these are his people. By finding his own personal connection to the material on a broader scale, he’s able to encourage a wider audience to do the same without resorting to maudlin sentiments or cheap ploys for sympathy.
Jenkins’ human-scale depiction of Miami, like MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY’s San Francisco before it, speaks to his fundamental interest in regionalism. Jenkins’ ability to render a vivid, tactile sense of place stems from the same well of humanistic compassion that fuels his exploration of Black identity. Rather than shoot recognizable landmarks or lean into the cliches of the local culture, Jenkins stages MOONLIGHT in locations that mean something to him, like the aforementioned Liberty Square housing projects where he grew up. In his commentary track for the film, Jenkins ruminates on the very real possibility that the buildings they shot in may very well have been demolished— the latest victim of gentrification and the radical reshaping of urban environments as playgrounds for the affluent. In this context, MOONLIGHT takes on added depth by capturing a vanishing Miami, rooted in small details that illustrate the socioeconomic fabric of the city as woven by its working class. Specific images linger in the mind, like Little taking refuge from his pint-sized tormentors in the crumbling ruins of a deserted tenement building; Chiron aimlessly riding a tram in a loop around town because it doesn’t cost anything; a security guard breaking up a vicious schoolyard fight, his mere presence evidencing the normalized hostility of an entire student body. It’s now something of a cliché to claim a story’s setting is a character unto itself, but MOONLIGHT can actually make that claim with a straight face— like a sentient person, Jenkins’ Miami physically acts upon our protagonists, prompting emotional and physiological response in a manner that advances the narrative.
MOONLIGHT’s success on the festival and awards circuit is well documented, initially premiering at Telluride before going on at the Toronto, New York, and BFI London film festivals. After its historic Oscar wins (which, out of 8 total nominations, also included a golden statue for Jenkins in the Best Adapted Screenplay category), the film entered wide release in cinemas, earning a worldwide gross of $65 million against a budget that fluctuates between $1.5 and $4 million depending on who’s talking. Now several years removed from its tumultuous Oscar night victory, MOONLIGHT’s worthiness of the honor has only solidified, and is well on its way to becoming regarded as a timeless classic. Often cited as one of the best films of a still-nascent 21st century, Jenkins’ sophomore feature evidences a filmmaker rapidly blossoming into his prime. Indeed, the leap from a scrappy low-budget debut to a splashy, awards-showered masterpiece hasn’t been seen on this steep of an arc since Michael Cimino, but one can reasonably expect that Jenkins won’t follow in the same ruinous footsteps as the vainglorious director of THE DEER HUNTER (1978). He’s simply too humble, too compassionate; his films aren’t a self-aggrandizing attempt at bolstering his own glory, they are genuine attempts at highlighting the beauty of our imperfect and impermanent humanity.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE: CHAPTER V (2017)
The reviews section on any given IMDB page is a great platform for people to unwittingly tell on themselves. If we truly live in an age of unprecedented media illiteracy, then the vindictive one-star reviews that litter the website might just be Exhibit A. Everyone’s entitled to their own tastes, but like a vengeful Yelp review, the scorched-earth (and often typo-ridden) remarks on IMDB tend to say more about these anonymous armchair critics than the actual work itself. Take Netflix’s DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, a television adaptation of Justin Simien’s celebrated 2014 indie film of the same name. An outspoken, irreverent, and supremely stylish exploration of contemporary Black identity and racial politics, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE positions itself from the outset as an instigator for passionate debate.
A one-star review for CHAPTER V, an episode written by story editor Chuck Hayward and Jaclyn Moore, betrays either the anonymous author’s total inability to process nuance or an unwillingness to truly engage with the issue. “Every single white character… is either a full on evil racist or a complete idiot who means well but still acts like a total racist… I don’t know anyone who actually used the word “woke” and I’m glad I don’t… Netflix has gone full SJW in the past few months. They deserve to lose business over this terrible content”. As self-aggrandizing as it might have been to hit that “publish” button, these knee-jerk surface level criticisms only serve to prove DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’s point— it’s impossible to have an actual conversation when one party isn’t actually listening.
Such reviews also show why artists like director Barry Jenkins are so necessary these days. We need filmmakers to extend empathy where audiences won’t; to keep hammering home the idea that there are actual people on either side of the argument… even when one side is definitively in the wrong. Jenkins understands that changing hearts and minds is only accomplished through dialogue and conversation, and listening is as necessary as speaking. This isn’t to say that dyed-in-the-wool racists and malignant ideologues should be given a platform for their bad-faith vitriol. Rather, for those whose hearts might still be changed, their inherent humanity has to be addressed so as to not foster the persecution complex that reinforces and inflames their opinions.
Set at the fictional Winchester University, ostensibly an affluent Ivy League college, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE follows a group of students actively working to further the conversation on race with white classmates rendered clueless by their privilege. CHAPTER V centers on Marque Richardson’s Reggie, a character carried over from Simien’s feature, who aspires to success as an app developer and an activist for social change. His natural charisma is complicated by the palpable presence of smug self-righteousness, shared by compatriots in the cause like Logan Browning’s Samantha White, a college radio host with piercing eyes devoid of pigment. Most of the episode finds Reggie and his crew gliding through campus, espousing the state of contemporary racial politics to anyone and everyone who will listen (and to those who won’t). Safely ensconced in this liberal arts bubble, they experience the opposite of their intended effect, encountering constant resistance that views them as annoying at best, and insufferable at worst. That all changes during a pivotal moment at a house party, where Reggie gets in an argument with a white classmate about his insistence on using the N-word while singing along to a hip-hop song. A physical fight breaks out and campus security is called, and Reggie experiences the visceral terror of having a gun pulled on him by an overly-aggressive (and unexpectedly-armed) officer who regards him as the sole threat. Reggie leaves the party physically intact but emotionally broken, rendered shattered and speechless by his demoralizing brush with police brutality and racial profiling.
Jenkins’ first stint directing for television finds him foregoing his evocative visual aesthetic in favor of the “house style” cooked up by Simien— a common practice for the medium so as to maintain continuity across episodes. The style of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’s digital cinematography (fashioned in CHAPTER V by director of photography Jeffrey Waldron) is clean and bright, favoring warm light and naturalistic earth tones. A shallow depth of field and headroom-heavy compositions inject some creative exaggeration into an otherwise-naturalistic approach. Other aspects, like a sequence where the characters break the fourth wall to proselytize to the viewer or even the percussion-heavy jazz score by Kris Bowers, lend a loose, casual air that allows the story to deftly elude the grasp of audiences who think they’re a step or two ahead of the storytellers.
As evidenced by CHAPTER V’s beginning with a James Baldwin quote and ending with Michael Kiwanuka’s single “Love & Hate”, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is animated throughout by its ruminations on the particular complexities of the modern Black experience. It’s not hard to see why Jenkins agreed to direct this episode, despite the absence of an opportunity to put his own artistic stamp on the material. While the story allows for Jenkins to display a natural aptitude for humor that his feature narratives don’t otherwise provide, the primary emotional vessel on display is outrage— several generations removed from the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there’s a palpable sense that these characters can’t believe they still have to put up with this shit. Look no further than recent efforts to overturn hard-won voting rights, deliberately engineered to disenfranchise communities of color and suppress their vote; the battles thought to be already won fifty years ago are still being fought.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, especially as seen in CHAPTER V, walks a very fine dramatic line in fashioning itself as a satire; it must show that the outrage is justifiable enough to wield it as one’s entire identity while also critiquing the more-militant aspects of their persuasion campaign. Indeed, Jenkins’ particular grasp of empathy and its many nuances and complications makes for a rich deconstruction of the so-called “social justice warrior” decried by the aforementioned one-star IMDB review. CHAPTER V’s satirical focus lies not in the usual antipathies of intolerance, but on a particularly acute delusion fostered by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency: that we had entered a beautiful new post-racial era where the ascent of the first African-American to the Oval Office was somehow enough to heal the wounds of slavery and white supremacy. This delusion, sustained primarily by privileged whites in the wake of Obama’s election, was so quickly embraced because it absolved the believer of individual responsibility while “affirming” their (misguided) convictions in their own tolerance. Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, released the same year as this episode, illustrates this conceit rather brilliantly, with Bradley Whitford’s character proudly declaring to Daniel Kaluuya that he would’ve voted for Obama “a third time if (he) could”.
Though any delusions that Obama’s presidency somehow “fixed racism” have been shattered in the xenophobic wake of his successor’s “Make America Great Again” cult, their very emergence still leaves a thorny legacy that must be tangled with. Through the narrative framework of CHAPTER V, Jenkins makes his own attempt to wrestle with the matter, showing how the outrage these protagonists cultivate as their identity has a self-defeating effect: it makes their ability to foster genuine connection even harder, while leaving them shockingly vulnerable to the myriad injustices that dominate our newsfeeds. CHAPTER V in particular presents a spectrum of injustice that members of the Black community might encounter on any given day, be it the exhausting indignity of being pulled into yet another debate about how and when it’s acceptable for a white person to use the “N” word (answer: never), or the very serious matter of suddenly finding oneself on the business end of a weapon wielded by an aggressive authority figure with a twitchy trigger finger. The latter illustrates the life-or-death stakes of our continued inability to communicate; a seemingly-insurmountable bias built into the very DNA of American institutions that justifies the urgent calls for change while deflating any pretense that we’ve made serious progress towards this supposed “postracial” society.
Jenkins uses the central event of CHAPTER V — the argument over whether a white character can justifiably use the “N” word in the context of the lyrics to a hip-hop song — to illustrate how these delusions of equality can be just as debilitating as open hostility. Reggie’s sparring partner is a privileged white kid who presents as friendly and cognizant of racial politics, but nonetheless is quick to defend his alarmingly-casual (and repeated) use of the “N” word as a gesture of respect to the song’s “artistic intent”. He’s fully aware of the word’s history and corrosive effect, but his distorted perception of equality has him convinced that he’s doing the artist a favor by not censoring the work. What he’s really doing is wielding his misguided sense of victimhood as a cudgel, deferring to his ego instead of making the genuine attempt to listen to Reggie’s reasonable concerns. Indeed, the righteousness of victimhood is what allows some to rail against “cancel culture” without reflecting on their supposed misdeeds. They decry the Social Justice Warrior as its own brand of elitism, possessed by a “holier than thou” attitude that empowers the activist as judge, jury, and executioner. The phrase “when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression” has been rather ubiquitous among online circles in recent years, and it feels particularly applicable in this context— reducing the efforts of progressivism to the “woke mob” allows the offending party to indulge in this persecution complex, and conveniently forget that this is all about accountability and speaking truth to power.
Jenkins’ approach benefits from the serialized television format, with the lack of a clear resolution enabling him to avoid any impressions of conclusive “preachiness”. He presents the situation in such a way as to concede the humanity of both parties without resorting to harmful “both sides” equivocations, and then simply leaves the audience to pick up the pieces and figure out where they stand. Though his artistic signature may be subdued, Jenkins’ first stint in television represents real growth into new storytelling formats and aesthetic tones, while setting the stage for forthcoming, major works like THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)
The mid-budget adult drama is all but extinct in contemporary Hollywood, relegated to the realm of streaming platforms after having been squeezed out of theaters by bloated franchise spectacles. In the vanishingly rare instance that such a film does make it to cinema screens, there’s usually an angle, and oftentimes, a cynical one— a naked bid for awards prestige, for instance, or a celebrity’s self-aggrandizing passion project… or both. The existence of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK — a thoughtful, earnest period romance colored by a sociopolitical urgency — is nothing if not a miracle. Directed by Barry Jenkins from a screenplay he began writing as far back as 2013, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is lavishly mounted on a scale rarely accorded to other films of its type. The additional resources empower a filmmaker who continues to blossom into one of the most important artists of his generation, uniquely-positioned to counter the creeping cynicism of our age with a boundless compassion.
Adapted from acclaimed author James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK treads familiar dramatic territory with fresh kicks; that is to say, that Jenkins’ singularly compassionate and curious worldview serves to invigorate a well-worn narrative archetype— the social-issues melodrama. Under Jenkins’ steady hand, Baldwin’s literary exploration of a young expecting couple separated by the glass plate of a prison’s visiting room is given a higher calling than the cynical pursuits of award season. Set against the evocative backdrop of Harlem in the 1970’s, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK tells the story of Tish Rivers and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, a young black couple who don’t so much fall in love as they plunge into it, quickly conceiving a child as they begin to forge a future for themselves. Said future is complicated by the squabbling between members of their respective families as well as Fonny’s incarceration following an accusation of rape from a woman that lives across town. A title card at the film’s opening explains Baldwin’s decision to name his Harlem story after a prominent Black neighborhood in New Orleans— one he describes as loud, busy, and stuffed to the brim with the type of intimate dramas seen here, effectively stitching Tish and Fonny’s trial of love into the greater fabric of our shared human experience.
Jenkins’ newfound prestige empowers him to assemble a compelling cast of black performers that give resonant breath to Baldwin’s words. KiKi Layne and Stephan James headline the film as our aforementioned couple, delivering a pair of nuanced and effective performances that quickly draw us to their side. Their youth, beauty, and tactile chemistry work together to effortlessly evoke the intoxicating sensation of falling in love, while the hardened performances delivered by their supporting cast members reflect the sociopolitical headwinds continually battering against them. Of these, Jenkins lavishes the most attention on Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother, Sharon. At turns both warm and resolute, Sharon is a fiercely protective matriarch who will go to any lengths for her family— even as far as Puerto Rico, in a bid to track down Fonny’s accuser in hiding and convince her to retract her claims. Colman Domingo delivers a memorable performance as Sharon’s husband, Joseph— an easygoing, amenable man who works overtime to smooth over the inter-family conflicts between the Rivers and the Hunts by partnering with Fonny’s father to steal clothes and sell them so as to help provide for their gestating grandson. Their particular arc serves to reinforce how, in a marginalized community where the system only works to keep its members down, sometimes the system must be subverted entirely if progress is to be achieved.
Jenkins employs an interesting tactic in filling out IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’s minor roles, casting highly recognizable faces whose screen times stand in direct inverse proportion to their industry profile. Finn Wittrock, perhaps most distinguished by his performance in Adam McKay’s THE BIG SHORT, plays Hayward, the Rivers’ lawyer and an ally who exhibits genuine concern over their wellbeing. Dave Franco and Diego Luna also display a large degree of empathy towards the central couple, Franco being an open-minded and sensitive Jewish landlord who leases them raw warehouse space for them to build their home within, and Luna being a cheerful and generous waiter at their local Mexican restaurant. Pedro Pascal, well-known for his turns on television shows like THE MANDALORIAN and GAME OF THRONES, appears briefly in King’s Puerto Rico sequence as a protective and enigmatic family member of Fonny’s accuser.
Produced on a budget of $12 million, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK finds Jenkins working at his largest scale yet, imbued with a wealth of resources that enable him to realize his sumptuous vision with little compromise. Rather than use said resources to pursue collaborators of a more “prestigious” pedigree, Jenkins elevates his own stable of trusted creative partners. Working once more with producers Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, and Plan B’s Dede Gardner & Jeremy Kleiner, Jenkins also re-enlists cinematographer James Laxton, editors Joi McMillon & Nat Sanders, and composer Nicholas Britell. Though it, technically, is a small picture by Hollywood standards, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK nonetheless feels “large”; this is on account of Jenkins’ and Laxton’s embrace of large format cinematography— the digital equivalent of 65mm celluloid film or even IMAX. The film was shot on the Arri Alexa 65, a large format camera with a 6.5k sensor whose pristine lines are softened here by the timeless elegance of Arri Prime DNA and Hawk prime lenses. With its increased clarity and shallower depth of field, the format offers a higher degree of immersiveness than its conventional cousins, and allows Jenkins to create a swooning, inward-looking atmosphere that recalls fundamental inspirations like Wong Kar Wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. The choice of aspect ratio also reinforces this approach— splitting the difference between the “cinematic” compositional conceits of 2.35:1 and the taller affectations of IMAX, Jenkins and Laxton adopt a 2:1 frame. First proposed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to better compensate for the emerging technology of widescreen televisions, the 2:1 aspect ratio has seen a rise in popularity in recent years as IMAX and other large formats have been adopted into narrative productions. Finding further adoption by Netflix and other players in the digital streaming space, the 2:1 aspect ratio suggests itself as an ideal blend of scale and performer physicality— an ideal compromise for our contemporary environment of multiple screens with little particular consistency between their rectangular dimensions.
Whereas MOONLIGHT embraced the lush greens and aquatic blues of it is sun soaked Miami backdrop, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK adopts a handsome, autumnal aesthetic; swaths of rich reds, oranges, yellows, and browns add an earthy dimension to high-contrast lighting setups reportedly inspired by the sumptuous black and white photography of Roy DeCarava. Elegant dolly movements give the picture a classical feel, helping to realize Jenkins’ and Laxton’s intent to translate “Baldwin’s language and clean energy into visual writing”. Editors McMillon and Sanders expand on the lyrical storytelling style they developed with Jenkins on MOONLIGHT, stringing together a nonlinear sequencing of the narrative’s events with an introspective, allusive voiceover. This creates the editorial equivalent of the “chopped & screwed” approach undertaken by Jenkins and returning composer Nicholas Britell— a conceit that effectively rearranges a given piece of music’s instrumentation and structure, deconstructing it for narrative purposes. This gives the film’s score — at turns both romantic and elegiac — an eclectic sound, punctuated by a jazzy horn section that, in some passages, calls to mind the work of Bernard Herrmann (specifically TAXI DRIVER, oddly enough). The clearest example of this technique within the film lies not in Britell’s score, however; it’s arguably used the most effectively in a piece pulled from the collection of vintage jazz and R&B tracks sourced to evoke the 70’s Harlem setting, laid underneath a ruminative sequence in which Fonny listens to an old friend expound upon the damage that his recent stint in prison has wrought on his psyche. The characters are in a relaxed setting (Fonny’s kitchen table), sharing a drink while the aforementioned music track plays diegetically in the background. The deeper Fonny’s friend goes into his experiences, however, the deeper Jenkins pulls us into his inner state; he manipulates the acoustics of the diegetic track to sound like a distant rumble echoing through a long, dark tunnel, as if to evoke the utter hollowness that now defines this man’s emotional state. All told, the cinematography, the editing, and the music work in beautiful harmony to impress Jenkins’ internal storytelling style upon the audience, affording deeper and more direct access to the characters’ distinct perspectives.
This extremely subjective approach breeds a natural empathy— easily the most defining trait of Jenkins’ artistry. Though each of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’s characters possess profound flaws, Jenkins’ lens nonetheless smiles on them with compassion; the simple act of capturing their likeness onto a sensor becomes a kind of grace. Jenkins’ refusal to pass judgment is embodied in a distinct shot that recurs throughout his filmography, wherein his characters gaze directly into the camera, their surroundings falling off into dreamy bokeh. This breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the context of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, effectively forces the audience to consider the characters’ humanity; no longer passive observers of simulated emotions, this technique makes them complicit in the machinations of the plot. It’s an effective approach in Jenkins’ bid to parlay matters of Black identity into broader audience appreciation. More so than his previous features, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK finds Jenkins tackling the the most prominent trappings of this particular theme: incarceration, impoverished communities, and institutionalized racism, among others. His recreation of 70’s Harlem is all encompassing — one gets a vivid sense of a specific place and time that’s tactile and immediate. Mark Friedberg’s production design bolsters Jenkins’ artistic embrace of regionalism, brought out by authentic locations and the narrative drama wrought by the particular conditions of the characters’ climate. The prospect of having a baby out of wedlock is challenging enough, but Fonny and Tish encounter additional resistance in the acute socioeconomics of their neighborhood, where a higher concentration of religious folks predisposed against the “scandal” of extramarital conception jams up against the bureaucracy’s debilitating lack of educational investment and resources in their community. The 70’s setting serves to further inflame this conflict, detailing an era where conceiving outside of wedlock was far less accepted by society at large than it is today. People are going to fall in love, and they’ll naturally want to express it, so to deny entire communities the information they need to grow their families on their own terms is nothing less than an institutional endorsement of economic imbalance that preserves existing power structures.
Timed to release as a major awards contender — an obvious strategy given the staggering awards success of Jenkins’ previous feature — IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK launched its prestige campaign by premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. Subsequent screenings at other prominent festivals like New York bolstered its profile, ultimately earning a worldwide total of $20 million in box office receipts and near universal praise from critics (many of whom singled out King’s fierce performance in particular). The response from the Academy, however, was oddly muted— come Oscar time, only King’s performance, Britell’s score, and Jenkins’ screenplay were recognized with nominations. Despite possessing a level of technical sophistication and emotional power on par with MOONLIGHT, there seemed to be some reluctance on the part of the Academy to fully embrace IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. One could posit the theory that they wished to avoid a repeat of the infamous debacle that marked the end of the 2017 Oscars, whereby Damien Chazelle’s LA LA LAND (2016) was initially announced as the winner for Best Picture before MOONLIGHT’S actual win was hastily announced. That Chazelle was also returning to the awards circuit that year with FIRST MAN makes it easy to imagine that Academy voters preferred to overlook the two men’s latest efforts so as to keep any reminder about 2017 to a minimum.
As it stands, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK marks a natural progression in Jenkins’ artistic trajectory. Its generous budget affords him his largest canvas yet, reinforcing his strengths as a gifted and supernaturally empathetic storyteller while showcasing his growing technical dexterity. Though the awards circuit ambitions harbored by its producers may have come up short, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK seems poised to settle into a sublime aftermarket life, with Jenkins’ resonant and gorgeous vision aging like a fine wine. Among its myriad virtues — visual elegance, emotional profundity, an inherent timeless essence — one quality in particular lingers in the mind: promise. That a filmmaker so relatively young, especially one that doesn’t come from the kind of privileged background that shapes other successful directors his age, can deliver an affecting work without compromise at a scale that frequently demands some degree of such, speaks to the promise of the films yet to come. Jenkins is here to stay, and we as an audience are all the better off for it.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (2021)
“Our color shall not be undone”.
These words, delivered by a Black winemaker and property owner named Valentine during the climactic moments of 2021’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, hang heavy over the entirety of the Emmy Award-nominated streaming series. The same sentiment could be applied to the larger filmography of its producer/writer/director, Barry Jenkins— his artistic voice being inextricably tied to contemporary Black identity. From the hipster-chic gentrification politics of his 2008 debut, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, to the thorny complexity of Black queerdom in 2016’s MOONLIGHT, and on through to the injustices wrought on Black families by the American carceral system in 2018’s IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, Jenkins’ films investigate the world from the perspective of a people whose interactions with said world are primarily dictated by the color of their skin. These works probe the meaning of being Black in America, an inherently complex question shaded by centuries of persecution and injustice. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD gets to the heart of the matter with its unflinching investigation into America’s original sin of slavery. Where this Amazon Prime Video series differs from similar harrowing stories like Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE or the celebrated miniseries ROOTS is the uniquely uncomfortable idea that there is no true freedom for these characters; no matter how many miles they put between themselves and their captors, there is no escape from the color of their skin— and thus, no escape from a world that cannot or will not acknowledge the fullness of their humanity.
Adapted from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book of the same name, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD deepens its harrowing meditation on the horrors of slavery with ahistorical (and even non historical) flourishes that conjure a “magical realist” atmosphere. The idea that, in this expressionistic vision of the past, there actually was a train concealed deep underground that ferried runaway slaves to freedom, gives Jenkins and company ample license to diverge from the historical record and introduce ideas that collapse the distance between that era and our own. Divided into ten episodes, the story chronicles the flight of Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia who endures no shortage of horrors and calamities in her pursuit of a nebulous and elusive freedom. Thuso Mbedu delivers a haunting and memorable performance, giving the character of Cora a delicate, yet resolute, physicality that bends but never breaks. After witnessing the brutal killing of a fellow slave — burned to death while a group of White onlookers enjoy their afternoon tea — Cora decides she must make her escape, subsequently killing one of her pursuers in self-defense as she takes flight with Aaron Pierre’s Caesar, a close companion with piercing blue eyes that convey a formidable intelligence. Indeed, Cora may have blood on her hands, but Caesar poses a particularly-pointed existential threat thanks to his ability to read and write.
Together, they are a high-profile target that earns the relentless pursuit of a slave hunter named Ridgway, who tracks Cora and Caesar across the ensuing ten episodes and several states. Joel Edgerton is arguably the highest-profile member of the cast, harnessing his flinty charisma and focusing it like a laser towards the task at hand. Like an antebellum Darth Vader, he stalks the land dressed all in black— a menacing wraith whose single-minded pursuit is almost monastic. That said, Jenkins affords the character a humanizing grace rarely accorded to his prey. Ridgeway does monstrous things but he’s not a monster; he’s a mere man. A product of his time and his upbringing, he possesses enough moral self-awareness to be disgusted with his life choices but has become too poisoned by them to actually change. Accompanying him on the hunt is a diminutive Black boy named Homer, played by Chase Dillon as a pint-sized assistant whose muteness belies the inherent conflict he feels towards helping Ridgeway track his own kind.
Though it takes its narrative cues from the long-established television serial structure, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD eagerly experiments with the untapped possibilities afforded by streaming platforms. No longer constrained by hour-long programming blocks, Jenkins and company take as much — or as little — time as they need with each episode. Indeed, some episodes, like Chapter 7, barely scrape a twenty-minute runtime. Episodes are divided and named according to their respective locations, allowing Jenkins and company to effectively “wall-off” each chapter’s events into something of a self-contained film all its own. Indeed, entire episodes branch off from the main narrative to provide added insight or information about characters beyond Cora. “Chapter 4: The Great Spirit”, for instance, serves as a kind of origin story for Ridgeway, focused on the power struggle between the slave hunter as an impetuous and frustrated young man (Fred Hechinger) and a cold, dispassionate father (Peter Mullan) who holds him at arm’s length. “Chapter 7: Fanny Briggs” revisits the supposed death of a young hideaway (Mychal-Bella Bowman), presumably trapped inside a burning house back in Chapter 3, only to reveal her escape through a back door and subsequent passage to safety via the railroad. “Chapter 10: Mabel”, while delivering evocative closure for Cora, spends half its runtime on a flashback revealing the truth behind her mother’s mysterious and sudden flight from the plantation some decades earlier. Sheila Atim delivers a formidable performance as the titular Mabel, showcasing the origins of Cora’s natural fortitude while demonstrating how the horrors of slavery can easily break even the hardiest of victims.
The grim, yet important, subject matter demands nothing less than tremendous performances from Jenkins’ cast. His aptitude for finding and cultivating unknown talent is on full display throughout the series, placing the revelatory performances of Mbedu, Pierre and company front and center, on a pedestal fortified by the structural integrity of better-known faces like Edgerton, William Jackson Harper, Damon Herriman and Lily Rabe (among others). Harper plays Royal, a charming, if somewhat-foppish free man who styles himself a gunslinger as he ferries Cora along the railroad and into an idyllic agrarian community owned by a free Black winemaker named John Valentine (a compelling Peter De Jersey). Herriman, who has notably played Charles Manson for both David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino, invokes his compassionate and humanitarian side as Martin, a member of a White village in North Carolina who hides Cora away in his attic at great personal risk to himself and his wife, Ethel. As Ethel, Lily Rabe delivers a particularly searing performance; a grimly pious woman who wields her religion like body armor, she’s initially angry about the discovery of Cora’s presence in her attic, but she finds the inherent humanity of her stowaway to be undeniable. In putting her faith to good use, however, she pays a terrible price.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD continues and expands upon Jenkins’ swooning, impressionistic visual style, making full use of his expanded resources to deliver his most ambitious and monumental work yet. As an entry in the nascent subgenre dubbed “magical realism”, the series combines the rough textures of reality with an evocative lyricism that leans ever-so-slightly towards the fantastical. The heightened atmosphere that results serves a storytelling purpose greater than mere aestheticism, imbuing the veneer of allegory atop the various events so as to make a point about the ongoing struggles faced by the Black community in contemporary America. In essence, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is not so much the record of a distant past than it is a veiled parable of our immediate present, whereby the continued injustices of dehumanization inflict profound scarring and complicate any hopes for a better future.
To accomplish this effect, Jenkins turns to his regular cinematographer James Laxton, who has been instrumental in developing the director’s poetic visual sensibilities over the years. The pair build off IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’s use of large format filmmaking, deploying the Arri Alexa LF to capture the 1.78:1 image at 4.5k resolution (although flashback episodes divert to CinemaScope 2.35:1 to further differentiate themselves from the main storyline). A set of Panavision Primo 70 and T-Series lenses establish a consistently shallow depth-of-field that captures the wan warmth of magic hour light in pleasing golden flares. Other elements — deep contrast, the omniscient perspective afforded by sweeping camera movements, large titles that fill the screen, and a hyper-atmospheric sound mix — establish an aesthetic unity between the various episodes, even as each chapter is given its own distinct look. “Chapter 1: Georgia” establishes the golden veneer that highlights an unexpected beauty in the face of savagery, while “Chapter 2: South Carolina” casts a diffuse, greenish daylight over a town where Cora and Caesar have taken refuge under an assumed cover as free people. Chapters 3 and 4, dubbed “North Carolina” & “Great Spirit” respectively, imbue an austere, frontier-life quality to their backdrops.
The back half of the series leans even heavier into individual stylization; “Chapter 5: Tennessee-Exodus” could also have been titled “Revelations”, transforming a stretch of rural terrain into a scorched earth, apocalyptic wasteland complete with pockets of fire and an ever present curtain of ash. “Chapter 6: Tennessee- Proverbs” teases an alternate-universe version of Jenkins as a genre storyteller, conjuring serious haunted-house vibes in its use of dim tavern light and pale moonlight bouncing off the walls of Ridgeway Senior’s creaky old plantation. “Chapter 7: Fanny Briggs” embraces the series’ magical realism affectations to the most overt degree, employing wide angle lenses that subtly distort our field of view while projecting the aforementioned magical qualities onto specific images like dust particles swirling around a lantern, as well as broader ones like a well-appointed network of underground train stations— complete with elegant electrical fixtures, romantic uniforms for personnel, and even a relaxing bar for weary travelers to slake their thirst. “Chapter 8: Indiana Autumn” picks up with Cora seemingly safe within Valentine’s free agrarian community run by, rendered with a soft autumnal light that evokes the austere romanticism of films like M. Night Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE (2004), only to pivot to a starker, muted palette with “Chapter 9: Indiana Winter”— a visual omen of the horror yet to come. Finally, “Chapter 10: Mabel” sees a return to the amber cast that distinguished Chapter 1, opening up from a CinemaScope frame to 1.78:1 as Cora reaches the end of the line and, at last, freedom. Similarly, the shallow depth of field that had heretofore dominated the aesthetic barrels out to an unchecked horizon, exposing this unknown promised land with a hyper-sharpness that suggests new and different hardships still await.
As evidenced by Laxton’s participation, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD thrives off Jenkins’ continued collaboration with longtime collaborators.The sheer scale of the production makes clear that the contributions of regular producer Adele Romanski are instrumental, as well as Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and other Plan B partners who previously provided their crucial support to MOONLIGHT. Returning Production Designer Mark Friedberg imbues each location with a harrowing authenticity, layering carefully-considered narrative artifice atop an atmosphere already soaked in the inextricable history of their chosen base camp in Savannah, Georgia. Returning editor Joi McMillon, in collaboration with Alex O’Flinn, easily taps into this atmosphere to create the series’ expressionistic quality, further aided by Nicholas Britell’s forceful, sweeping score. Defined primarily by thunderous strings, the lush, orchestral sound of THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD seems to reverberate through an immense interior space, reflecting the characters’ tormented psyches. This technique draws a direct throughline to Jenkins’ previous feature work with Britell— a further refinement of the “chopped and screwed” approach borrowed from hip-hop that aims to convey the mysteries of inner space.
Speaking of hip-hop, Jenkins also incorporates an eclectic selection of contemporary and classic needledrops, thrown over the end titles of each episode to further tie these seemingly-distant events to our tumultuous present. Each track is deployed to provide indirect commentary on their respective episode’s events, from OutKast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” closing out Cora and Pierre’s initial escape in bombastic fashion, to Pharcyde’s “Can’t Keep Running Away” and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”. This sprawling collection of tunes, which extends to include even the Jackson 5 and other vintage R&B tunes under its umbrella, is particularly inspired; taken together within the context of the story at hand, Jenkins provides a kind of historical survey of the popular musical traditions that emerged from these very conditions and experiences. Claude Debussy’s classical composition, “Claire de Lune”, has been used quite extensively in film and television, but its unexpected appearance here — during a montage depicting the Valentine Farm community at its height — underscores a beautiful, fragile moment in time encased in amber… and that can be irreparably shattered with one forceful strike.
To watch THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, and to witness the myriad trials faced by Cora and those like her, is to continually grapple with the realization of how something as terrible as slavery could ever have come to pass. One hundred and fifty years removed from the end of the Civil War, it’s tempting, perhaps even comforting, to believe we’ve grown as a society— that we’re simply too enlightened now to think such horrors could ever occur again. This delusion, however, is a luxury afforded only to the privileged. Jenkins’ “past is present” approach offers a firm rebuke of such naïvete, drawing parallels to the accelerating creep of xenophobia, nationalism, and outright fascism that defines our current political climate. They are grim reminders of our toxic ability to dehumanize others, which enables such atrocities with a sickening effortlessness. As an artist and a storyteller, Jenkins is uniquely suited to this material— and not just because his previous work predicates itself on the experience of being Black in America. His emphasis on regionalism — evocative explorations of the people and culture of a specific place and time — gives this not-so-distant past a visceral immediacy, capturing a fullness to the resilient humanity (and unflinching inhumanity) driving the machinations of plot.
Indeed, it’s telling of Jenkins’ artistic priorities that clear-cut antagonists like Ridgeway aren’t completely vilified. The palpable compassion that courses through his art prevents him judging Ridgeway even as he clearly condemns his actions. Jenkins graces the character with conflicted nuance and just enough backstory to show his psychology springs from the same wellspring of humanity that shapes Cora. Narratively, this approach keeps us on our toes— the suspense is never about whether he’ll catch up to Cora or not, it’s about if he’ll ultimately choose to help her if he does. Indeed, compassion isn’t just a pet theme that Jenkins imposes on Whitehead’s source material, but a vital structural element; for all their agency as runaways, they are ultimately at the mercy of strangers. Their humanity must be seen and acknowledged by those who stand to help them, because freedom doesn’t lie in some faraway “promised land” reachable only by a magical train network— it lies in their recognition as equals in the here and now. This being a work of fiction (albeit one inspired by a horrific truth), the burden of recognition falls squarely on us. From MOONLIGHT onward, Jenkins has regularly deployed a kind of signature shot that compels his characters to break the fourth wall and gaze intently into the camera, transforming our act of viewing into a narrative complicity. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD populates its running time with shots like these — shots that sear themselves into the brain by dint of their direct eye contact — transforming a director’s stylistic flourish into a vital tool of engagement. We are compelled, repeatedly, to bear witness to what’s happened here.
Another line from John Valentine’s rousing speech near the climax of Episode 9 lingers in the mind: “None was given. All is earned”. Delivered during an emotional crescendo (and prelude to a massacre), the line is not unlike an inverted echo of the phrase: “when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD demonstrates the impossible divide between those who’ve had to fight (even shed blood) for every right gained and those who merely needed the good fortune of being born free. Valentine’s great sin in the eyes of society was building a beautiful, self-contained and self-sustaining community where free Blacks could live in peace and enjoy the same quality of life as their White counterparts. The winemaker knows how tenuous the existence of his community is— he’s compelled to bribe the local judge with bottles of wine to keep slave hunters from poking around his property. Perhaps the atmosphere of Valentine’s farm is so idyllic because they know they’re living on borrowed time; the White hegemony — indeed, its entire economic system — depends on Black subjugation, and the independence of Valentine’s farm represents, in their eyes, an existential threat that can’t be allowed to stand. The power of Jenkins’ vision lies in his demonstrating how little has changed in the ensuing years; those born without inherent privilege still make their gains with blood, sweat, and tears. A minimum wage that doesn’t line up with the cost of living, community activists safeguarding property values by advocating against affordable housing, the underfunding of crucial social security programs: these are all symptoms of the same disease that, left untreated, can foster dehumanization and facilitate atrocity.
Released to Amazon Prime in May of 2021, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD showcases staggering growth on the part of a filmmaker already operating at the peak of his powers. Where some indie-minded directors might choke under the sheer breadth of resources available to him, Jenkins makes breathtaking use of the tools at hand to realize the epic scope of his story while never losing sight of character. Critics were quick to appreciate Jenkins’ work, applauding it as one of the finest shows of the year. Their praise would translate to no less than seven nominations at the Emmys, but said nominations would ultimately prove to be the end of the line for producers’ awards hopes. Despite its undeniable power as the rare work of art amidst a sea of lavishly-budgeted “content”, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD’s also-ran status in the awards conversation shows that there is still work to be done. It will age beautifully, yes, as wider audiences are given the time to discover it, but our collective desire to award broader, “safer” works demonstrates a profound aversion to the ghosts of our history. We choose haunting over healing, but as Jenkins so evocatively reminds us, it is compassion — and all the hard work that entails — that will salve these wounds.
THE GAZE (2021)
Though he was producing for the corporate behemoth Amazon, one could scarcely label director Barry Jenkins’ involvement with THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD as a “work-for-hire”. The existence of 2021’s THE GAZE is proof-positive of that: a 50 minute concept piece compiled and released by Jenkins himself, THE GAZE throws his artistic intentions with THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD into sharp relief.
A recurring visual motif throughout THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD finds the action punctuated by lyrical compositions that showcase various cast members (lead, supporting and extra alike) staring directly into the camera, their blank expressions seeming to penetrate the veil of fiction from across the vast distances of history. THE GAZE reveals just how extensively Jenkins and company labored to incorporate this concept into their shoot schedule, generating enough setups in this manner to comprise an entire separate feature’s worth. The format — consistent across each setup — is not dissimilar to a lens test, beginning with the image thrown out of focus before resolving its subject: a lone figure or a small group, each individual standing stone-still and gazing directly into the camera as it tracks forward. The backdrops display key locales from throughout the series, be it Cora’s plantation, Ridgway Senior’s creaky old mansion, Valentine’s farm, or the romantic underground stations of the titular railroad system itself. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton imbue these portraits with characteristic stylization, letting gold sunlight flare into the corners of the frame while shooting in slow-motion so as to reinforce the gravity emanating from each participant. All the while, Nicholas Britell’s haunting score bridges each composition into a singular piece of living history.
Even as a concept piece with only the faintest wisp of a narrative, THE GAZE asserts itself as a showcase for Jenkins’ core artistry— a foundation held up by the pillars of compassion and visibility. The act of breaking the fourth wall has the effect of involving the audience, of making us complicit in the proceedings. The characters invite us to bear witness to history unfolding in the present tense; the irony, of course, being that there’s nothing we can actually do. These are just images, fixed onto a two-dimensional plane. Mere light, flickering amongst shadow. To find these faces looking directly back at us is to force our acknowledgment of their humanity, activating our compassion and — hopefully — our resolve to resist the forces of dehumanization in our own lives.
THE GAZE reinforces Jenkins’ own compassion for his collaborators, its unique format serving to highlight the luminescent beauty of Laxton’s cinematography, the resonant weight of Britell’s score, or the earthy texture of Mark Friedberg’s production design. Indeed, the piece itself exists entirely because of Jenkins’ compassion, posted with no advance fanfare to his personal Vimeo page and only picked up by media journalists after the fact. Though not necessarily essential, it is more than a worthy companion piece to THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, allowing Jenkins to complete his artistic ambitions with the project to full satisfaction.
As of this writing, THE GAZE is Jenkins’ most recently released work, although it unfortunately has been removed from Jenkins’ Vimeo page and is no longer widely available (smash that download button if it’s available, folks!). With his recent attachment to helm the sequel to Disney and Jon Favreau’s live-action THE LION KING adaptation, Jenkins now stands in a peculiar place in his filmography. The occasion of a massive, brilliantly-executed Amazon Prime streaming series proves without a shadow of a doubt that Jenkins is a consummate filmmaker at every level of production or tier of budget. Though his decision to join the Disney studio machine when his prior work has otherwise been so bracingly personal and uncompromising is admittedly a puzzling development, it also represents an opportunity. It’s easy to be cynical and dismiss the move as “selling out”, but beyond the added bonus that the gig will probably set him up for quite a while financially, he clearly sees potential where many (if not most) do not. For that reason alone, it gives fans and followers of his work a reasonable cause for good-faith curiosity. Regardless of where Jenkins’ artistic whims take him next, he remains on a clear trajectory as a force for innovation, courageousness — and yes, compassion — poised to profoundly shape American image-making for many years to come.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———