Why There’s No Hard Feelings Between Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle

By  · Published on February 28th, 2017

A look at the filmmakers’ kinship throughout awards season and beyond.

As the most infamous mixup in Oscar history unfolded last night, the only feeling that could rival my excitement for Moonlight’s historic win was my dread for how audiences everywhere could misinterpret the moment entirely. This was a Best Picture upset for the ages, a true moment of significant progress for marginalized voices everywhere – and yet, a mere misplaced envelope had turned it into a shameful prank, with one movie humiliating another.

Film Twitter and beyond exploded with memes and one-liners to commemorate the epic mishap, with one too many weaving the narrative that the Moonlight team had saved the day, rightfully swiping the award from the undeserving clutches of the cast and crew of La La Land. “This is what we hoped would happen on Election Day,” one user noted, likening a musical passion project to a fascist leader, apparently. One particularly troubling joke was a screenshot of La La Land director Damien Chazelle staring blankly as director Barry Jenkins and the rest of Team Moonlight stormed the stage. The caption: “The world just witnessed a supervillain’s origin story.” But what we really witnessed was a complete and utter misunderstanding of not just last night’s fiasco, but also the relationship between Jenkins and Chazelle, and perhaps filmmaking and film itself.

One would not have to reach far to find similarities between Chazelle and Jenkins, in both their career paths and their successes. Although admittedly, their childhoods could not have been more different: while Jenkins grew up in a broken home in Florida, Chazelle was raised by professors in New Jersey; while Jenkins played football in high school, Chazelle played the drums. But both young men decided to study film in college (Jenkins went to Florida State; Chazelle to Harvard), and both met important future collaborators while there (Jenkins met his regular cinematographer James Laxton; Chazelle met his regular composer Justin Hurwitz). Hell, their debut features premiered within a year of each other: Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy first in 2008, then Chazelle’s Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench in 2009. Both were shoestring-budget love stories noted for their bold black-and-white cinematography and vibrant portrayals of their respective cities. Additionally, both were rejected by Sundance, a shared disappointment that Jenkins and Chazelle have talked about in interviews.

Chazelle and Jenkins catching up at Telluride (courtesy of @Albert_Tello on Twitter)

Fast forward two years shy of a decade, and both filmmakers were about to unveil their new works at Telluride 2016: it was Moonlight’s world premiere, and La La Land’s first North American screening. Awards buzz was heating up for both of them, whereas earlier that year, nearly every Oscar prediction site had La La Land only as a distant contender – and almost no mention of Moonlight at all. But even as audiences at the festival devoured the two biggest films of the year, the filmmakers themselves remained as humble and down-to-Earth as ever. Chazelle praised Moonlight during his press junkets, while Jenkins returned the favor for La La Land. “It breaks my heart because your film is just as good if not better,” a fan tweeted at Jenkins, lamenting La La Land’s success. But the director quickly replied, “it ain’t a competition! Just love of cinema!” Jenkins continued, “Let’s celebrate it in all its forms, especially when it comes from a true place!” In other tweets, Jenkins has continually referred to Chazelle as a friend and peer. “He’s a real nice cat,” Jenkins tweeted at Telluride. “Cool to have another young dude out there.”

Awards season, like the election before it, has made a two-party mentality out of all of us, pitting us against our fellow humans and separating the world into a reductive binary of us versus them. Unlike the election, however, there is really no good or bad here: just people who love and make films. Moonlight faced the key issues of 2016 head-on and embodied the struggles of identity and acceptance that pervade throughout the nation; it raised important questions and forced us all to ask them, too. La La Land in turn did the opposite, providing not an “escape,” but rather a celebration and reminder to us all about the importance of art, dreams, and passion; and, despite its two white leads, it is set in a delightfully racially diverse Los Angeles (every featured singer in its opening number is a person of color). While many may disagree about which film’s mission is more socially noble, more relevant, or even worse, which is better, it should not matter to fans of film and filmmaking – like you and me, or like Jenkins and Chazelle.

Below is a clip from a Hollywood Reporter directors’ roundtable in which both Jenkins and Chazelle participated. They are the two youngest directors at the table. And while Moonlight took home the gold last night, both filmmakers took home trophies of their own: Jenkins for writing, and Chazelle for directing.

Here’s to the incredible films they make next.

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21. Filmmaker. Writer for Film School Rejects. Featured on MTV, Indiewire & The A.V. Club.