At a keynote address at South by Southwest on Sunday morning, director Barry Jenkins read from the Oscars speech he would have delivered if “Moonlight” had been correctly announced as the 2016 best picture winner.
“Tarell [Alvin McCraney, his co-writer] and I are Chiron,” he said, looking back at his prepared remarks, which referenced the protagonist of the film. “We are that boy.” Jenkins wanted to wanted to point out that when you watch “Moonlight,” you wouldn’t think the character would grow up to win an Oscar. “I’ve said that a lot and what I’ve had to admit is that I placed those limitations on myself. I denied myself that dream. Not you, not anyone else — me.”
Jenkins continued to reference that idea throughout his one-hour address in Austin, where he covered how he broke into the film business against the odds. The last line of his speech, which he never got to read during the confusion of Oscars night, still brought tears to his eyes.
“I have this thing I wanted to say about brick walls,” Jenkins said at SXSW. “I’ve run through a lot of brick walls to get to this stage. I only realized looking back that is what I’d done. I look back and I realize there are friends who are left on the other side of those walls. It’s a very bittersweet thing.”
Jenkins grew up in Miami in a family of three kids. “I was born to a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine,” he said. “It was a very difficult upbringing.” He pursued creative writing in college and eventually stumbled into film school, dropped out for a year to study movies on his own (renting all the foreign titles at his local Blockbuster Video store) and then went back with the tools he needed to succeed.
His first movie, “Medicine for Melancholy,” premiered at SXSW in 2008. He made the drama with only a $12,000 budget and a five-member crew. “I have never screened a movie at Sundance,” Jenkins said. “I am a SXSW filmmaker.”
The festival launched him on the indie scene. But Jenkins stumbled with his follow-up project. “I get a deal at Focus Features,” he said. “Now I’m going to make myself into the filmmaker I think a person in my position should become. And yet, I wasn’t navigating myself. I was working on a project about Stevie Wonder and time travel. I called it, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Stevie Mind.’” He said that the premise was too big for him. “I thank those fellows every time I see them for humoring me,” he said, of former Focus CEO James Schamus.
Jenkins returned to SXSW around 2012, and got into a “knockdown fight” with an old friend, the producer Adele Romanski. Four years later, she called him to patch things up and they decided to team up to jumpstart both their careers. Through daily riff sessions, they came up with the idea for “Moonlight.”
“There were people telling me this is career suicide,” Jenkins said, about the story that followed “a young black boy struggling with his sexuality and his mom is addicted to crack cocaine. We are going to cast three actors to play him. The third actor looks nothing like the first two.”
He said that he believes there are movies that are as good as “Moonlight” that never got the same recognition. “’Moonlight’ did not do what it did because I’m special,” Jenkins said. “It’s just one of the things that happened. You have to keep making the work.”
When he returned to Miami to shoot “Moonlight,” he remembered a night when the locals from his neighborhood came out to see the shoot. A group of kids snuck into video village and sat down in his chairs. It was a powerful image that still stays with him.
“If I cried that night, it wasn’t because we won best picture,” Jenkins said about the Oscars. “I cried because I realized I denied myself that dream for so long.”