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 (1), 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 (2), 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” (1). 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 (3), 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 (1). Scaled-back ambitions of a career in television writing and commercial directing sustained him through the roughest patches (1). 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.
- Via Wikipedia: Stephenson, Will. “Barry Jenkins Slow-Cooks His Masterpiece”. The Fader. Retrieved October 22, 2016.
- Via Wikipedia: Keegan, Rebecca. “To give birth to ‘Moonlight,’ writer-director Barry Jenkins dug deep into his past”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
- Via Wikipedia: “United States Artists » Barry Jenkins”. Retrieved May 26, 2020