Barry Jenkins unwittingly found himself at the center of the most embarrassing faux-pas in Oscars history at the 2017 ceremony. But as well as getting caught up in the drama of the Best Picture fiasco, the Moonlight director achieved a major first that largely went unnoticed. Here’s a look at how the 38-year-old broke new ground at the Academy Awards.
Born in Liberty City, Miami, in 1979 Barry Jenkins experienced a turbulent childhood. He lost his estranged father at the age of 12 and was largely brought up in a crowded two-bedroom apartment by a friend of his young mother. After graduating high school, he then studied film at Florida State University.
Jenkins relocated to LA just days after his college graduation to chase his filmmaking dreams. Following a two-year stint as a production assistant, he made his feature-length debut in 2008 with Medicine for Melancholy. Shot in San Francisco on a shoestring budget, the drama centered on the immediate aftermath of an alcohol-fueled one-night stand.
Despite the film’s strong critical reception, though, Jenkins’ career then stalled slightly. Written for Focus Features, an original screenplay involving Stevie Wonder and time travel failed to make it to the production stage. As a result, Jenkins took a carpentry job to make ends meet and later helped to start an advertising company.
But Jenkins continued to pursue a career in film in his spare time. In 2011 he directed sci-fi short Remigration, and a few years later he took a writing job on HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama The Leftovers. But he finally made his Hollywood breakthrough in 2016 when he shot his first feature-length film in eight years.
The film in question, Moonlight, was an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical stage play, In Midnight Black Boys Look Blue. Set over the course of three different decades, the Miami-shot drama followed the fortunes of a young gay African-American man named Chiron. Alongside established stars such as Naomie Harris, Moonlight also cast several amateurs from the local area.
The movie earned rave reviews from the press on its 2016 premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. The Atlantic described it as “an intelligent, challenging work,” while The New York Times’ Wesley Morris hailed it as “astonishingly beautiful and inspired.” Both Moonlight and Jenkins subsequently became major contenders on the 2017 awards circuit.
Indeed, Moonlight picked up Best Motion Picture – Drama awards at the Golden Globes and received five other nominations including Best Director. It also won six gongs at the Independent Spirit Awards and Best Acting Ensemble and Best Supporting Actor at the Critics’ Choice Awards. And the Oscar voters took it to their hearts, too.
In fact, Moonlight was nominated eight times at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017. In the end, the film’s cast and crew made it to the podium – eventually – on three occasions. Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor, Jenkins won Best Adapted Screenplay and the film itself won Best Picture. Of course, the latter’s reveal went down in infamy thanks to an almighty administration error.
Indeed, Jenkins and co. initially thought they had lost the category when presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway declared musical La La Land as the victor. However, the pair had been given the envelope for the Best Actress award previously handed out to Emma Stone. After a frantic few minutes, Jordan Horowitz, the La La Land producer, revealed the mistake and crowned Moonlight the winner.
Sadly, the chaos surrounding the mix-up meant that Jenkins never managed to read the acceptance speech he’d written just in case. Nonetheless, he was finally given the opportunity over a year later at Austin’s SXSW Conference. In the speech, the director admitted to the audience that he hadn’t dared to dream about winning such an award.
The Oscars mix-up also overshadowed a major milestone that Jenkins had achieved. The 38-year-old had become the first ever black filmmaker to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Director. But although he won in the first two categories, he lost out in the latter to La La Land’s Damien Chazelle.
In fact, Jenkins was only the fourth ever black filmmaker to pick up a Best Director nomination in the history of the Oscars. The other three were Boyz n the Hood’s John Singleton in 1992, Precious’ Lee Daniels in 2010 and 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen in 2014. Jordan Peele became the fifth in 2018 thanks to horror comedy Get Out.
Before the 2017 ceremony, Jenkins told Time magazine that achieving such an Oscar-first was a bittersweet experience. “I’ll be happy when there’s no longer any space for firsts because it’ll mean those things have been done,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the first person who’s merited this distinction. I don’t understand how someone like Spike Lee has never been nominated for these three awards.”
Jenkins went on to add, “The greatest thing is, I can take out my phone and look at messages from total strangers who feel a little bit less alone because of this film. I do recognize that it’s larger than me. That’s why I even hesitate to speak on it, because I think it’s larger than me.”
A year later, Jenkins joined the other black Best Director nominees for a The Hollywood Reporter roundtable in which he admitted that the Best Picture mix-up still haunted him. “I’ve never been as distraught as I was at the Vanity Fair party after the Oscars,” he said. “I mean, did you see the show? It’s not the kind of thing where you go running off with pom-poms.”
“I look back on that whole process… and all that s*** comes together at the end and because of how things went down, I didn’t enjoy it,” Jenkins added. “And I’m never going to get the opportunity to enjoy that – because even if it happens again, it won’t be the same. Moonlight was a very special film for me.”
Jenkins first began to put the Oscars drama behind him by helming the fifth episode of Netflix original Dear White People. He’s also currently working on The Underground Railroad, a series based on the Colson Whitehead novel about two southeastern U.S. slaves’ bid for freedom in the 1800s. A screenplay for a biopic of professional boxer Claressa Shields is in the works, too.
But Jenkins’ first attempt to impress the Oscar voters since the Best Picture fiasco will come in 2019 with If Beale Street Could Talk. The 38-year-old first began working on the screenplay in the same year that he penned Moonlight. Set in early 1970s Harlem, the love story is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s fifth novel.
Jenkins has also made headlines in 2018 for a highly entertaining live-tweet of Notting Hill. The director became a viral sensation back in January with his opinions of the much-loved romantic comedy during a flight. Jenkins wasn’t even viewing the film properly – he was only watching it over the shoulder of a fellow passenger.