Barry Jenkins wrote and directed My Josephine in 2003 as a film student.
Barry Jenkins is a rule breaker. The Moonlight writer-director completely changed the game when his film took home best picture at last year’s Academy Awards. Moonlight is the first film with an all-black cast, as well as the first LGBT film to achieve this honor. This record-breaking feat would be impressive for anyone, but especially so for Jenkins; Moonlight is only his second feature-length film. His first was Medicine for Melancholy in 2008.
White men primarily make up the world of auteur filmmakers, creating films about straight white people. Seeing someone like Jenkins, who is breaking that mold, win prestigious awards is incredibly refreshing in an industry always in need of more diverse voices. The early work of these kinds of filmmakers can give us insight into their trajectory as an artist. Seeing the first film of a writer-director like Jenkins is a real treat.
My Josephine is an 8-minute short film written and directed by Jenkins in 2003. He was completing a BFA in film at Florida State University at the time. James Laxton, who is also the cinematographer of Moonlight and Medicine for Melancholy, shot the film.
Jenkins’ three inspirations for the film, which are included in the Vimeo description, feel important to mention before getting into the specifics of My Josephine:
“Inspired by three things: the marquee of a Tallahassee laundromat shortly after 9/11 reading “American Flags Cleaned Free,” an image in my head of two people sitting atop folding tables, and my housemate at the time being obsessed with Napoleon.”
My Josephine is notable for many reasons. Anyone who’s seen either of Jenkins’ films knows that he’s not afraid of tackling topics both serious and uncomfortable. Medicine for Melancholy is about two strangers who have a one-night stand. They reconnect and discuss race, gentrification and their experiences being black in predominantly white San Francisco at length. Moonlight tackles black masculinity, sexual identity, socioeconomic class, addiction, and more through the coming-of-age of a young man named Chiron in Liberty City, Miami. Jenkins makes things that we might not have considered to be cinematic, cinematic. We can see these roots of his later filmmaking taking hold in My Josephine.
My Josephine doesn’t offer many explicit plot details or background on its characters. Short films are often inherently ambiguous due to their run times. At the most basic level, the film seems to be about two Arabs living in the U.S post-9/11. We don’t definitively know the ethnicities of the characters or where they’re from, but all of the film’s dialogue is in Arabic.
In 2003, this kind of plot would’ve been a hot-button issue and likely quite controversial for Jenkins to make as a student. In the description for the video, Jenkins says that even though he wrote the film shortly after 9/11, My Josephine “wasn’t actually made for another year because of the way things shook out in school.” Islamophobia in the U.S after 9/11 was rampant and is still a big problem today. The film does not address whether or not the characters are Muslim, but the fact that they are speaking Arabic would likely have been controversial enough.
My Josephine takes a very well executed approach to this complicated topic. The more common cinematic route for a story like this would likely have included a dramatic hate crime or something that more directly confronts the political climate of the time. Jenkins, however, can achieve that kind of emotional resonance with this simple love story. Doing so may be riskier, but pulling off something more subtle, as Jenkins does here, makes for much more interesting and nuanced art.
The American Flag
The American flag works well as a motif in the film. The narrator and Adela washing American flags free of charge for their customers can be read in many ways. What stands out to me is the way the two of them appear to be laboring over the flags. The narrator says that cleaning them is an easy process, but the visuals tell a different story. We see him and Adela washing the flags by hand, drying them in separate machines, and then delicately folding them. Again, in a short film, we don’t get that many specific details, but it would appear that the two of them are staying at work after hours to clean the flags meticulously.
The fact that they are cleaning the flags for free makes the viewer wonder what their motive is. Could they be offering this free service to curry favor with any customers who might be prejudiced? For all we know, the two of them were born in America. So, could they just be cleaning the flags out of a sense of patriotism? Are free services of this nature just the kind of thing that people did in the wake of 9/11? In the end, their motives seem left up to interpretation.
Napoleon and Josephine
While the film is about the post-9/11 political climate, My Josephine also goes beyond that and works well as a love story. The film does not reduce the characters to merely acting as a vehicle for political commentary on post-9/11 America. They are, for an 8-minute short film, pretty well-rounded characters. The most important thing to our narrator appears to be his affection for Adela, whom he refers to as “my Josephine.”
As the narrator says, the film takes its title from Napoleon’s first wife, whom he married for love. The comparison this invites between the relationship of Napoleon and Josephine and the relationship between the narrator and Adela feels significant. Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage wasn’t just a magical love story, though. While they did, in fact, marry for love – proven by the numerous love letters Napoleon wrote to her – they still had a turbulent marriage. When Napoleon led a French army to Egypt in 1798, both he and Josephine engaged in affairs. The nature of their relationship is said to have changed because of this separation. Napoleon’s need to produce an heir was the primary motivation for their divorce. Even though their marriage didn’t last, and their relationship wasn’t perfect, the two read statements of devotion to one another at their divorce.
We can make anything of the comparison between these two and our narrator and Adela. The juxtaposition provokes just as many questions as the act of cleaning the flags does. Does the narrator compare Adela to Josephine because he loves her but the relationship could never work? Does he have an obligation to someone else? Is something preventing them from having a happily ever after? If so, what’s stopping them? Can they overcome that obstacle? This aspect of the plot is, once again, something our imaginations can run wild with.
My Josephine is so well-done because the film provokes equal curiosity for all the questions it poses. We both wonder about the larger political implications and feel an emotional connection to these fleeting characters and their relationship. Hopefully, seeing My Josephine can give fans of Jenkins’ even more to consider when enjoying his work.
Jenkins’ next project is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Jenkins is writing and directing. Baldwin, like Jenkins, is an important artist for the way he addresses numerous social issues so artfully in his work. Last we heard, Jenkins was in the midst of filming the project in December in New York. Surely, the film will continue Jenkins’ streak of telling important and rare stories with a deft cinematic touch.