Moonlight Director Barry Jenkins Rises From Miami's Underground Film Scene
Photo by David Bornfriend
Update: Since the publication of this feature, Barry Jenkins released the critically acclaimed film Moonlight in 2016, which has garnered six Golden Globe nominations and is a serious Oscar contender.
Barry Jenkins calmly navigates his navy blue Nissan Maxima through the empty afternoon streets of Overtown. He crosses rusty train tracks and passes skeletal figures curled up in shuttered doorways before turning onto narrow NW Miami Court. News of union protests in Wisconsin wafts gently from the stereo as Jenkins squints through thick-rimmed glasses and carefully turns into a small, fenced-in parking lot. Suddenly he slams on the brakes.
Dozens of them. Dripping blood, their distended eyeballs and seeping wounds glisten in the South Florida sun. They moan while scraping their feet across the blacktop toward four small, cute, perfectly groomed dogs huddled silently under a dirty tent.
But Jenkins, a handsome, compact former Northwestern High School fullback and track star, doesn't bolt.
"Cut!" yells a young bearded man in a trucker hat. The zombies relax and head inside for potato chips and juice boxes as the postapocalyptic spell is broken. Jenkins backs his car away from the chaotic set of Play Dead, a sanguinary spoof of the Homeward Bound animal adventures, and parks on the street in the desolate, semi-industrial neighborhood. The 31-year-old Taye Diggs look-alike in geek glasses, a plaid shirt, and skinny jeans slides out of the rental car and bounds toward the building. He pulls open a glass door flecked with fake blood and walks into the hub of Miami's indie movie world: the Borscht film studio.
"Fucking zombie dogs," Jenkins remarks, glancing at a corner office transformed into a kennel for the movie's canine stars.
"Do Not Enter Unless Trainer Is Present," reads a sign on the door. The dogs cost hundreds of dollars each per day to rent. They are the most expensive items in the grubby, whitewashed warehouse. In fact, their combined acting fees are twice as much as the entire budget for the film Jenkins has flown to Miami to make: a 25-minute short called Chlorophyl. The plan is to shoot it in six days for less than the cost of a catered lunch in Hollywood.
Chlorophyl is one of a dozen short movies commissioned for the seventh annual Borscht Film Festival, a wildly creative three-week event akin to Sundance on psychotropic mushrooms. The festival ends this Saturday with a screening of Jenkins's film and others at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Knight Concert Hall.
Jenkins will be the reluctant star of the show, the city's shy prodigal son returned home to show off his filmmaking talent. He's a jock from Miami's most dangerous neighborhood who has quickly become one of the most sought-after young directors in the nation. His debut feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, won a handful of independent movie awards, and was ranked one of the best movies of 2009 by the New York Times. He is now juggling two potentially multimillion-dollar movies and weighing an offer to direct another for Disney.
He is a triple rarity in Hollywood: a young, black director who has so far refused to sell out by resorting to bigger-budget films.
His most immediate challenge, however, is making Chlorophyl fast. Sitting in a cluttered office the night before filming begins, he rummages through his camera equipment and scratches several scenes from the script. Already, things are starting to fall apart: Mike Diaz, the lead singer of MillionYoung — the local band whose song "Chlorophyl" inspired Jenkins's short — has dropped out.
"Fuck," the normally unflappable Jenkins sighs as he rubs his closely shaven head. "This is like making a full movie. Where's my Miami vacation?"
Jenkins focuses his Canon 5D for a scene shot at the swanky Cynergi condo building in Wynwood.
Photo by George Martinez / Location provided by Real Living Residences at Cynergi Condos
The morning sun flickers off the swimming pool like a disco ball, splashing Ana Laura Treviño's face in brilliant white light. The curvy, quiet 26-year-old Mexican-American stands motionless in the middle of a tony house in the Design District. She's dressed in a skimpy gray T-shirt and jean shorts and clutching a stiff screwdriver cocktail.
"Action," Jenkins says, huddled next to a camera and tripod.
As the song "Chlorophyl" booms from the stereo system, Treviño sways her hips and spins slowly. She nearly splashes her bright orange drink on a $30,000 sofa made of stuffed animals. As layers of percussion build over the dreamy, synthesized melody, Treviño prances back and forth in her bare feet, throwing her head back like a Navajo rain dancer.
"Cut!" Jenkins shouts suddenly, bringing the music — and Treviño — to an abrupt halt. Something is missing.
"I need a joint," the director says. "Where's my joint?"
As a production assistant hastily rolls an oregano-filled spliff for the scene, Jenkins sneaks a look at the footage. Though shot on small, handheld digital cameras by a tiny crew, the images are stunning: Treviño, a first-time actress scraping by on a TV production job, is transformed into Ana, a jilted young lover trying to forget her philandering ex-boyfriend.
But a life of fine art, primo weed, and Grey Goose onscreen couldn't be any more removed from Jenkins's youth, spent less than two miles from here.
"Growing up, I never set foot in an apartment like this," Jenkins says. Instead of swimming pools, he and his friends used to jump off roofs onto old mattresses for fun. In fact, his family often had to heat water in a kettle on the stove to take a hot bath. "Whenever I tell people I'm from Miami, they always ask me about the beach. But I can count on one hand the times I went there as a kid."
Jenkins was born November 19, 1979, just as black Miami was about to explode in anger. A month later, white and Hispanic Miami Police officers beat to death a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie. When the cops were acquitted of murder the following May, thousands of protesters swept the streets, from Overtown north to Liberty City.
The McDuffie riots ushered in a dark decade. Crack cocaine took the neighborhood by storm in the '80s, and the Jenkins family was torn apart by its own addictions. Barry's father, Barry Moore Fickerling, was more interested in drinking than raising his son or paying child support. Alcene, who shares her son's small, almond-shaped eyes, had other issues that forced her to leave 3-year-old Barry and his two older siblings with their grandmother. "She was definitely part of the craziness that caught so many people in Miami back then," Jenkins says of his mother's extended absence. "Let's just leave it at that."
Barry's grandma Minerva and older sister Kimberly raised the undersize boy in the Village housing project at NW Eighth Avenue and 69th Street. Budgets were tight, but two things were never lacking around the house: football and television.
"There were times when we didn't have hot water or a phone line," Jenkins remembers. "But I guarantee you, we always had cable, and it was always on."
When he wasn't watching Eddie Murphy flicks, Barry played pick-up football. Always the smallest kid in the game, he threw himself around with abandon. During massive scrums called "throw up, tackle," kids would meet on a side street or in an empty lot, scrunch up some old rags or newspaper, and go berserk. Barry was the only kid who kept picking up the ball, even after ending up on the bottom of a ten-person pile.
"That's how I learned to run," Jenkins remembers.
Then after Barry's ninth birthday, Liberty City once again burst into flames. In January 1989, Miami cop William Lozano shot black motorcyclist Clement Lloyd as he fled. The bullet struck Lloyd in the head, sending him swerving into an oncoming car. Both he and his passenger died. This time, black Miami didn't wait for a show trial to take to the streets. The mayhem lasted four days.
From his family's small apartment, young Barry watched as the Edison Furniture store across the street — "the only place in the neighborhood for new shit" — was ransacked. As a paint warehouse a block away belched 50-foot flames, figures flitted past Barry's window; they were carrying TV sets, stereos, and even mattresses slung over their shoulders. The riot would haunt him — not only the violence but also the anger and distrust that gripped the neighborhood for years after the riots.
Jenkins remembers his childhood fondly and insists Liberty City was safer than today. But gangs and guns were still all too common. A boy slightly older than Jenkins was shot on a nearby basketball court, and Jenkins's 12-year-old cousin was jumped and badly beaten by a dozen older kids.
"They made a circle around him," remembers Jenkins, who was 6 at the time and watched the gruesome event. "He knew he had it coming. They beat the shit out of him."
Jenkins's reaction was to hit the books harder than ever. Soon the family moved to Opa-locka and then Carol City in search of a safer neighborhood. But Jenkins returned to Liberty City for school, enrolling in an elite medical magnet program at the new Northwestern High School, built near the spot where the now-demolished Village once stood.
At five-foot-eight and 175 pounds, Jenkins had filled out enough to play football for the Bulls. By his senior year, he was team captain, ahead of future NFL stars Torrie Cox and Vernand Morency. When the season ended early for the powerhouse program, Jenkins ran track, leading Northwestern to a district title as one of Miami-Dade's fastest in the 110- and 330-meter hurdles.
Jenkins was recruited to play football at several Division II schools but set his sights instead on an English education degree at Florida State, where his 4.9 grade point average and 1210 SAT score earned him a full ride. He continued with sports at FSU, nearly leading his flag football team to an intramural title. He also studied like hell.
Then one day near the end of his junior year, when he had just about earned enough credits to graduate, Jenkins was walking past the Seminoles' massive football stadium when he spotted the film school, one of the best in the country. On a lark, Jenkins decided to apply to the program, which admitted only 30 students per year. A few months later, he was accepted.
Jenkins and his director of photography, David Bornfriend, line up a shot while filming Chlorophyl.
Photo by George Martinez / Location provided by Real Living Residences at Cynergi Condos
On a cool summer night in San Francisco, a young black man and woman drift down the street, laughing and stumbling drunkenly. In matching hipster attire, they cling to one another like new lovers, at least until the woman, Jo, receives a text message on her phone.
"Who's that?" Micah slurs, stopping on the sidewalk. Jo keeps walking without answer. "Is it any surprise?" he scowls. "Is it any surprise that folks of color in this city date outside their race?
"OK...," Jo says cautiously.
"I mean, think about it."
"No. Let's not," she says, trying to coax him back to her side.
"Everything about being indie is tied to not being black," Micah shouts. "People call it interracial dating, but there's nothing interracial about it. Nine out of ten times it's a person of color hanging onto a white person."
She stares at him in disbelief.
"It's always one of us clinging onto one of them," he adds spitefully. "I mean, look at you. Why the fuck you got to date some white dude?"
"Why are you doing this?" she screams. "What do you want from me? You think that just because I'm black and you're black, we should be together. We're one, right? We fucked and I didn't even want to know you. I've been spending the last 24 hours cheating on my boyfriend and you think because I'm black and you're black, that we should be back together.
"Fucking crazy," she says to herself. Fighting back tears, Jo hails a cab and leaves Micah alone on the street.
The scene is a dramatic crescendo to Jenkins's 2008 film, Medicine for Melancholy, which follows Micah and Jo around San Francisco the day after an awkward one-night stand. Jenkins's first — and so far only — feature film, Medicine deals with gentrification, romance, assimilation, and seduction.
Above all, however, it's about race. Wyatt Cenac, now on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, plays Micah, an aquarium installer constantly seething over how yuppies have dislodged poor, predominantly black San Franciscans from their own city. Despite his diatribes, Micah woos Jo (Tracey Heggins) — an elusive, artistic young woman who prefers to ignore racial issues.
Jenkins made Medicine with a minuscule crew and $13,000 borrowed from a friend. But with its focus on race and class, and its lovingly composed shots of San Francisco, the movie did the nearly impossible: It went mainstream, premiering at the South by Southwest Film Festival. From there it was picked up by the Independent Film Channel and shown in New York, London, Paris, Krakow, Vienna, and Buenos Aires. The New York Times' A. O. Scott called it one of the best films of 2009.
The movie also launched Jenkins's career. He received "Best First Feature" and "Someone to Watch" nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards — the Oscars of the indie movie scene. Filmmaker magazine named Jenkins one of the "25 New Faces of Independent Film" and put him on the winter 2009 cover. Meanwhile, Medicine won awards at independent film festivals across the country, from San Fran to Sarasota to Woodstock. Jenkins had burst, if only momentarily, onto the national scene at the raw age of 29.
But the path to making Medicine had been littered with years of scratched scripts. Eight years before, when he had shown up at FSU's College of Motion Picture Arts, he had understood next to nothing about film.
"I didn't even know making movies required developing film," he laughs. At the time, however, Jenkins saw nothing funny about how far behind he trailed his fellow students.
The school was filled with older students, many from around the globe. "I think he felt overwhelmed by the fact that he was sitting across from a guy from Palestine who had just made a movie about conditions in the West Bank," says Frank Patterson, dean of the film school.
So Jenkins took a leave of absence to teach himself the basics. He spent nearly a year in the FSU film library, watching everything from Akira Kurosawa to Jean-Luc Godard and Claire Denis. Then he returned to class.
"He got so into it," says Garrod Copeland, Jenkins's FSU roommate at the time. "There was camera equipment everywhere. I had to leave the house for days at a time because he was always filming." Jenkins even persuaded his roomie to help him with his homework.
"He was trying to depict a dream or something like that," Copeland remembers. "He had me dress up in a plastic garbage bag and helmet. It was at night too. We were in the parking lot of our living complex, and I had to run full speed and tackle a dummy," he laughs. "It was crazy."
Jenkins didn't emerge as a top directing talent, however, until his first summer in film school, when he made an eight-minute called My Josephine. It followed an Arab man and woman working in a small-town laundromat who washed American flags for free. The movie touched on themes of otherness and assimilation. Jenkins says the characters were loosely inspired by a shopkeeper in Liberty City.
"When the Lozano riots happened, the next morning everything was looted. Broken glass was everywhere," he remembers. "The only place that wasn't looted was the corner store run by a Middle Eastern guy that my grandma called 'the Arab.'"
Shot in eerie greenish-blue tones, the short film is more a meditation on longing than a political statement. And its vivid, moody style stood out.
"That was really an eye-opener for everyone," says close friend and former classmate Mark Ceryak. "When he made My Josephine, it was like, 'Barry Jenkins has arrived.'"
The film also marked Jenkins as the enfant terrible of an emerging genre. Mumblecore films are low-budget and star nonprofessional actors. They feature improvised, hard-to-hear dialogues and document the listless lives of their out-of-college but not quite grown-up characters. The genre got its unofficial start in 2002 with Andrew Bujalski's movie Funny Ha Ha.
Film school was the quirky, creative melting pot that Jenkins had dreamed of as a child growing up in a Miami still segregated by what he calls "invisible barriers" between neighborhoods and races. And although he came home to work during the summers, Jenkins looked forward to his first day back on campus, behind his camera.
After graduating from FSU, Jenkins moved to Los Angeles to work as an assistant to Darnell Martin, a young female director then making Their Eyes Were Watching God. When the movie wrapped, he took a job with its production company, Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios. Both jobs paid well: enough to send his ailing mom occasional checks. But Jenkins was miserable. Long hours reading other people's scripts left no time to develop his own ideas.
"I got to the point where I thought maybe I'd never make another film," he says.
After a year at Harpo, Jenkins quit. He cashed his 401K, divided his furniture among friends, and gave his 1999 Ford Taurus to charity. With five grand in savings — and saddled by a lifelong fear of flying — he plotted a path around the country by train. First stop: San Francisco.
The city was the anti-L.A.: damp, dense, and foggy, its streets lined with dive bars and cafés instead of palm trees and power-lunch locations. Jenkins loved it. He stayed with friends, sat in coffee shops, and started cranking out scripts with his yellow notepad and red ballpoint pen.
Soon he fell hard for a young single mother named Cassandra Mayall. When she dumped him a year later, the ill-fated relationship became the fodder for Medicine for Melancholy: The couple's conversations about interracial dating are reproduced nearly word for word in the film. Jenkins also littered the movie with homages to her. For instance, "Jo" is Mayall's middle name.
"For me, obviously there's a connection to the movie that can't be experienced by anyone else," Mayall says. "I still cry every time I watch it." The two have discussed getting back together, but Jenkins admits he's still stung by the breakup. He made sure Mayall saw Medicine for the first time on the big screen.
But in confronting the rarely discussed issues of race and class just as Barack Obama was running for president and the real estate bubble was bursting, the intensely personal film also found universal appeal.
Cenac, Medicine's leading man, says he could relate to the film's focus on gentrification, which he saw in his own neighborhood in L.A. He also understood his character's preoccupation with labels like "black," "white," and "hipster."
"Comedy is a world where there aren't a lot of minorities," Cenac says. "So I get that. I've been that guy at the party and seen another woman across the room who looks like me, and thought, We have the same skin color; we should get married."
But the film is not about angry black men, Cenac says. "It's very easy to compartmentalize that film and think that's just a feeling that black men have. But everybody has this idea in their head what love should be. When they think they've found it and that person doesn't return that feeling, it sucks."
Boom operator Felix Alvarez records sound for the film.
Photo by George Martinez / Location provided by Real Living Residences at Cynergi Condos
Medicine for Melancholy was a personal triumph for Jenkins, but it sure as hell didn't make him rich. The year the movie came out, he scraped by on $15,000 from stocking clothes at a Bay Area Banana Republic. In 2009, when he sold the film to IFC, he used the almost $100,000 to pay back the movie's producers and the musicians whose songs they had used.
The critical success of Medicine left Jenkins in a director's no man's land: unable to retreat to his normal life but still needing another break. When the offers did arrive, they were often to direct someone else's script — an idea Jenkins abhorred — or to direct more mainstream "black" films like those of Tyler Perry.
"It's all about the box office," Jenkins says.
Of course, he has his own bills to pay. In the two years since selling Medicine, it's become increasingly difficult to turn down six figures in favor of pet projects like Chlorophyl. Last month he says he rejected an offer to direct a feel-good, music-related film for one of Hollywood's biggest studios. It would have paid him $250,000 and come with a budget of $10 million — 200 times his largest production to date.
"Jesus Christ," he sighs. "I do think about the money sometimes. Not just turning down the project but turning down a job that lucrative. I'm seen as an independent, artsy-fartsy director right now. But I feel guilty about it. Who am I to turn down an opportunity like that when my mom, sister, brother could use that money?"
Jenkins has, however, signed onto several other projects. He has agreed to direct one of four parts of an adaptation of Will Eisner's gritty 1978 graphic novel, A Contract With God. And he has begun the third draft of a script for Focus, the studio behind Oscar winners Brokeback Mountain and Milk. "I can't say more about it because the subject of the film is still alive," Jenkins says inscrutably. The film would pay Jenkins 250 grand and come with a multimillion-dollar budget.
Hollywood giant Disney has also tried to woo Jenkins with a big contract. He's considering the offer. "The problem is, once you get pigeon-holed, it's hard to get out. Disney movies are PG max, the characters are limited, and they can't do certain things they would in real life" — like drink, smoke, or have sex. "But it's a lot of money."
For a man whose most recent short film, Remigration, envisions the near future when San Francisco grinds to a halt because there aren't any working-class people left, it's hard not to see the irony in Jenkins selling out.
Long after dark on a recent weeknight, Jenkins pulls up in front of a small orange duplex on NW 100th Street near 11th Avenue in Liberty City. After he waits a few minutes in the dark, a black Cadillac joins him in the driveway. Corey White, Jenkins's best friend since middle school and a mountain of a man, gets out of the car and unlocks the front gate.
"Believe it or not, Corey used to be pretty damn athletic," Jenkins jokes, entering the bachelor pad. Empty bottles of vodka and Hennessy line a desk like trophies, and Popeyes bags lie discarded on top of an ironing board. White turns the flat-screen TV set to high school football, but the pair is too caught up in reminiscing to watch.
Slumped on a brown leather sofa, White tells stories of the duo lining up ketchup packets for cars to run over on 69th Street. And they laugh at the misfortune of a close friend who was busted for soliciting a female cop posing as a prostitute outside a club.
When it's time to leave, White's mother comes over from next door to see Jenkins. "You still a little boy," she says, squeezing him like a doll in her broad, powerful arms.
"Mom, he's famous now," White says. "He's a movie star. He's on the cover of magazines."
"Almost famous," Jenkins objects.
For a moment, Jenkins looks like the ball-carrier of old: sprinting, stopping, and spinning once again on a cloudy Miami night. But the floodlights of Traz Powell Stadium have been replaced by the twinkling high-rises downtown, and his small hands are empty. Instead of the roar of the Northwestern marching band, there is only the crunch of Treviño's shoes as she wanders around the empty lot.
Jenkins and his director of photography, David Bornfriend, are shadowing Treviño with a camera as she paces the gravelly grave of the Miami Arena. It's the last night of filming for Chlorophyl. Jenkins has decided to reshoot the scene in which Ana breaks down after catching her boyfriend cheating on her at a club. When they first filmed the sequence, Treviño overacted — screaming, pounding on cars, and sinking to her knees on the rocky surface. Tonight, she just looks exhausted and dazed. It's pure mumblecore gold.
Chlorophyl is a movie about Miami, but not Jenkins's Miami. Shot in expensive apartments, art galleries, a downtown nightclub, and a Wynwood photo studio, it's more an ode to being young and monied than poor and black.
But moments of his Miami — the city he has tried so hard to leave behind — seep into the film. When Jenkins scouted the empty lot earlier in the week, images of the Lozano riots flashed through his mind. And as Treviño climbs onto a motor scooter for the last shot of the night, signs of the city's darker side are everywhere.
Jenkins and Bornfriend rig a Canon 5D on the hood of Jenkins's rental car using a suction cup and two bungee cords. All told, there's nearly $5,000 worth of equipment strapped to the front of the vehicle. Slowly, Jenkins eases the Nissan onto the street as Treviño takes off on a scooter ahead of him.
Dozens of homeless people are spread out on thin cardboard mats in downtown doorways. When the car pulls up to a red light, several bums stare at the hood-mounted camera. "Somebody is going to jump out from one of these street corners and —," Jenkins begins to joke. Suddenly a disheveled woman in a sweatsuit ambles up, shouting unintelligibly.
"Turn right," Jenkins urges Treviño. "Turn right!"
Just as the woman reaches the front of the car, Treviño peels off. Jenkins hits the gas and races away.
Like Micah in Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins has a love-hate relationship with his native city. Although it's not as gentrified as San Francisco, he sees Miami as poorer and much more segregated: a fact reiterated every time he leaves the Design District to visit Corey White in Liberty City or his mother's tiny apartment in North Miami.
"I feel guilty trying to reconnect with them," he admits one night over a Cuban sandwich and beer. "I don't like that when I hang out with Corey, it's on the other side of town." Only now — more than a decade after leaving — is Jenkins finally making sense of Miami. And only now is he ready to re-create it onscreen, race riots and all.
"In San Francisco, people come up to me all the time and say, 'Thank you for making a movie that shows the city like it really is,'" Jenkins says. "But I'm not from San Francisco."
He pauses, looking out over the city he swore he'd never move back to. Yet Chlorophyl has kicked up some ideas for a film shot nowhere less than Liberty City.
"I want to make Medicine for Miami," he says. "Now, maybe I will."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.