Barry Jenkins gave one of the film festival keynote speeches this week at SXSW. The speech covered the ‘Moonlight’ Director’s life and career thus far. He told the packed ballroom about growing up in the projects of the Liberty City district in Miami, Florida. How he grew up on Die Hard and called it “The Greatest Christmas movie ever made”. A statement that forced me to concede that I have been on the wrong side of that debate. If it’s good enough to be a Christmas movie to someone like Barry Jenkins, it should be a Christmas movie for all of us.
He also talked about his how his childhood included a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine and it became clear that he and the character of Chiron that he had won a best adapted screenplay crafting were incredibly similar. He even said as much when he read for the audience his planned best picture speech. A speech he never got to give because of controversial end to the 2016 Oscar ceremony.
Tarell 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.
Jenkins took the audience on his journey through college, film school, his time working for Oprah and his years in the creative wilderness between his debut film ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ and ‘Moonlight’. Through the entire 45 speech he had the audience hanging on every word of his incredible story. He also was forthcoming with every aspect of who he is as an artist. Including his faults. He shared with everyone the doubts he had about himself in film school. Wondering if he was behind his class because he didn’t have the same opportunities they had or because he grew up “poor and black” which meant he could never be a director.
He shared with all in attendance how he rebounded from that low, teaching himself the language of film during a year off from film school. That drive he learned then led to him landing a job at Harpo films within 2 weeks of leaving college. He gave young filmmakers and artists in the crowd inspirational and practical tools for them to use on their creative journeys and in their careers. And he closed the ceremony by reading his best picture speech one more time. This time the words felt even more impactful.
Those words were how Jenkins opened and closed his keynote and what a powerful moment it would have been to end the 2017 Oscars with Jenkins telling the next generation of minority filmmakers and artists to chase their dreams and achieve the success they know is in them. The Q&A that followed was filled with black and female filmmakers who truly did see him a symbol of what their art can be capable of. It’s truly a shame that last year’s Academy Awards didn’t end with this powerful speech. I’m glad I got to hear it from him in Austin and I felt truly fortunate to be in the audience where it was read for the first time.