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Long before he won the best picture Oscar for “Moonlight” last year, Barry Jenkins launched his directorial career at South by Southwest in 2008 with his film “Medicine for Melancholy.” He considers himself a SXSW filmmaker and, hoping to guide a new generation of young, aspiring filmmakers, Jenkins spent a good portion of his Sunday keynote at this year’s festival highlighting some things he believes helped him to be successful.
1. He had a speech prepared for the Oscars that has never been publicly read out loud.
During all the chaos that was the best picture announcement last year at the Oscars, in which the wrong film was initially announced, Jenkins was unable to fully express what he wanted to say. At SXSW, he read aloud the speech he had planned to read:
Co-writer “Tarell (Alvin McCraney) and I are Chiron. We are that boy. And when you watch ‘Moonlight,’ you don’t assume a boy who grew up how and where we did would grow up and make a piece of art that wins an Academy Award — certainly don’t think he would grow up to win best picture. 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. And so, to anyone watching this who sees themselves in us, let this be a symbol, a reflection that leads you to love yourself. Because doing so may be the difference between dreaming at all and somehow, through the Academy’s grace, realizing dreams you never allowed yourself to have.
2. Filmmakers have to be real with themselves.
After being accepted into film school at Florida State University, Jenkins began to question his abilities one semester in after seeing how capable some of his classmates were with cameras and lighting. So, instead of giving up completely, he asked the dean of the college to give him one year to go out and get better at all the basics so that he could come back fully prepared to be a great film student. Much to his surprise, the dean accepted this offer. He took a year off, absorbing everything he possibly could about movies, filmmaking technicalities and film theory. Then he returned, as he said he would, ready to finish school with full force. From this experience, he learned that “at certain points in your life and in your career … you have to be real with yourself.”
3. Personal stories are important.
One of Jenkins’ shorts he made as a student in the early 2000s, “My Josephine,” is about an Arab-American couple washing American flags. Before he decided to make that film, he wondered how best he could find a way to make the story personal, while also creating something that would resonate with others and what was happening in the world as well. Ultimately, he found a connection and went forward with it. “There was a saying that was going around … that to be Arab was the new black in America,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, being Arab is the new black.’ I know what it feels like to be black in America. Let me take these two things and put them together.”
4. Achieving success involves a mixture of proactiveness and chance encounters.
Nothing about Jenkins’ career has been easy. When people tell him that he was an overnight success, he thinks about his 10-plus years working toward where he is today. And even though his first full-length film premiered at SXSW, it took a lot of proactivity on his part to get it there. Even at the festival, Jenkins and his crew campaigned hard for their film to be noticed. After catching the eye of an individual who worked for the Toronto International Film Festival, “Medicine for Melancholy” ended up screening at Toronto as well. As exciting of an achievement as that was, though, it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Years went by before Jenkins made another film, and he began to wonder how he could change his path. It wasn’t until he reconnected with a friend who pushed him to move forward that he began to restart his career and make what would eventually become “Moonlight.”
5. A best picture Oscar isn’t something you can plan for.
Jenkins ended his speech on a hopeful note. When speaking of Oscar night last year, he talked about how he gave himself limitations as a director throughout his career because he never fully realized what was possible until that moment. “If I cried that night, it wasn’t because we won best picture,” he said. “I cried because I realized I had denied myself that dream for so long, I didn’t recognize it until, through the help of my friends, I was able to give that dream to someone else.”