Serious cineastes started to watch Jenkins as far back as 2008, when the Florida State U. grad made a black-and-white feature called “Medicine for Melancholy” on a budget of about $15,000. That bittersweet debut premiered at SXSW, landing him an agent at CAA and a deal with Focus Features. But it wasn’t until Jenkins resurfaced eight years later with “Moonlight” that the rest of the world suddenly took note of his talent.
After the frustration of working on a couple movies that never got made, Jenkins — who got by doing shorts and branded content in the interim — decided to scale back and tackle a more personal project, adapting an unproduced play by fellow Miami native Tarell Alvin McCraney. “We grew up in the same neighborhood and went to some of the same schools,” says Jenkins, whose “eureka moment” was inspired by the Hou Hsiao-Hsien film “Three Times,” deciding to divide the structure into three chapters played by separate actors.
Though Jenkins’ first two features both center on contemporary black protagonists, “Medicine” is a talky, eloquent first-date movie set over the course of a single day, while “Moonlight” is more visually driven, its meaning conveyed through action and atmosphere, as events span nearly a decade in a young man’s life. Indeed, Jenkins is drawn to many different genres.
“Ultimately, I like making movies about people, and I think those people often dictate the aesthetic of a film. The movie I worked on before this was a memoir called ‘Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,’ and it could not be more different: There were hardly any black people in that movie, and yet I cared about it as much as I care about this one,” says Jenkins, who admires directors such as David Fincher who create a massive space in which to tell compelling narratives, insisting, “There’s no reason a story like ‘Moonlight’ shouldn’t be as big as ‘Captain America.’”