From a part-Spanish language short film about jilted love to a feature-length movie about a one-night-stand that takes in topics as varied as gentrification, interracial dating, and the fish tank industry, Barry Jenkins has been making films as diverse in subject matter as they come over the last fifteen years. As unique as each Jenkins movie is, his filmography is always brought together by certain quirks of style, directorial flair, and casually poetic dialogue. But between the two movies that (currently) bookend his career, there is another distinctive hallmark of Jenkins’ approach that stands out: his treatment of marginalized peoples.
Moonlight, the most recent of Jenkins’ movies, tells the story of a young, black, gay, working-class boy (later a man) as he navigates an identity that takes place at the busy junctions of gender, race, sexuality, and class. But both prior to and since the movie’s release, boys who “look like” Chiron (or Little as he’s known in the film’s first act) have really only featured in mainstream media for one thing: their deaths. While the volume of disturbing similarities between the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown will indicate to most people a nationwide, institutional problem with racism, the dominant narratives coming from police departments and many mass media outlets have connected the deaths and lives of these boys in a very different way. Racist tropes have been used as the lens through which to frame their stories, and as such, guilt has been posthumously assumed over innocence, the characters of young boys and their families have been maligned, and, ultimately, the murders of children have been rewritten as righteous acts of self-defense. Incidents of police brutality against adult black citizens have been framed in much the same way, but the specific legacy of the way Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown’s stories have been treated has been to problematize black boyhood; to render black boys inherently dangerous and deny them all the mercy and compassion society usually reserves for children.
Against this socio-political backdrop – the main features of which still persist to this day – a movie that refuses to succumb to the conventional framing of black boyhood, and instead treats its young black protagonist and his inner life with all the holistic attention, empathy and patience he is due is nothing short of radical. The movie’s assertion that “black boys [are] precious”, as Guardian writer Steven W. Thrasher puts it, is a revolutionary statement to make during a time when they are often treated as “expendable”.
The scenes in which we see Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) lavish Chiron with tender parental love play a key role in affirming Chiron as a child deserving of being cherished. And in true Jenkins style, both the director and writer Tarell McCraney extend the compassion they treat Chiron with to Juan, Teresa and Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), whose stories would also typically be framed in less-than-empathetic terms: Paula fights her own battle with single parenthood and crack cocaine addiction throughout the film, while Chiron’s foster father Juan’s conscience is troubled by the dissonance of his personal morals and his means of making money (selling drugs). Paula’s addiction is explored with the kind of nuance and sympathy usually devoid in representations of drug addiction (which is often framed in criminal, rather than humanistic, terms), while the characters of Juan and Teresa are given the same fully-rounded treatment that resists defining them solely by the drugs Juan sells for a living.
Moonlight entirely subverts the way its characters’ stories are usually told, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jenkins’ storytelling is that it is so unpretentious; so quiet and unassuming in its radicalness. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates deftly summed up Jenkins’ humbly ground-breaking approach in an article at The Fader:
“So often art about blackness or LGBT issues engages in this debate about whether we’re human or not — and Barry just steps right past that. He’s saying it’s not an argument worth having. He tells the viewer you have to accept this. You have to accept that they’re human.“
Looking back to the first movie Jenkins directed, the film school short My Josephine, we can see the seedlings of the compassion that grew to define his Oscar-winning feature. The short, which Jenkins wrote not long after 9/11, is an impressionistic portrait of an Arab couple who run a laundry business offering a free flag-cleaning service. Josephine isn’t shy about where its subjects are from: Aadid (Basel Hamdan), the movie’s male protagonist, conducts his voiceover exclusively in Arabic in its very first few seconds:
As it has been since even before the September 11 attacks, Arabic is usually only employed in movies as a kind of screenwriting dog-whistle, with its foreign-sounding syllables being used to signify a threat and let audiences know that the speaking character is probably a “dirty terrorist” (see: Homeland, 24, and the movie Rules of Engagement for examples in action). In Jenkins’ film, however, Aadid is a doting young husband, a small business owner and a Napoleon enthusiast, and those are the things that My Josephine focuses on; they don’t define him, as Jenkins’ style is to carefully resist boiling down a person’s essence to one or more details of their life, but they are the personal facets of Aadid that the movie emphasises. The fact that Jenkins chose to include Arabic dialogue in his film without intending it to entail any of the usual ideological or geopolitical implications about Aadid shouldn’t be so ground-breaking, but it is, and it’s also personally moving for those of us (myself included) who come from Arab backgrounds and are so used to only hearing the Arabic language (or, indeed, seeing other aspects of Middle Eastern cultures) when they are part of screen roles as diverse as ‘Terrorist #1’ and ‘Terrorist #12’.
As with Moonlight, if there’s anything political about My Josephine, it’s that the politics usually associated with people who look and sound like its protagonists are totally absent. Aadid, his wife Adela (Saba Shariat) and Chiron and his loved ones exist beyond the usual binaries of storytelling about black boys and black people, about Arab men and Arab women. The very individuality of Jenkins’ characters is what makes them so radical in the world of film; they’re ground-breaking precisely because they’re so authentically distinct.
For a medium that views itself as having an advantage over music, writing, theatre, and art in terms of capturing the complete human experience, genuinely authentic characters are sadly hard to come by in cinema. Movies committed to filling in this gap are required for the continued growth of modern film culture, but there’s a far more pressing need for society at large to have films that are committed to unapologetically portraying the complete humanity of marginalized or persecuted peoples. For audiences of every demographic, there are valuable reminders about the universality of the human experience in Jenkins’ films, while for those of us who feel ourselves reflected in his characters, there is priceless personal meaning in seeing them treated with the unquestioning compassion many of us are so often denied in everyday life.
That Jenkins hasn’t compromised on the political nucleus of his work – being as dogged in his humanity-affirming focus in Moonlight as he was fifteen years prior in My Josephine – points to just how highly the director prioritizes asserting the worth of marginalized people, and how deeply he understands the moving power of film.