Sitting in the Dolby Theater during the 2019 Academy Awards, something dawned on Barry Jenkins. "I was like, 'Yo, I don't think anybody white has won an Oscar,'" the director, screenwriter, and producer said.
The evening's winners at that point included Regina King, one of the stars of Jenkins' film If Beale Street Could Talk, who picked up the Best Supporting Actress award, and Black Panther's Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler, who won for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, respectively. Husband and wife duo Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directors of Free Solo, won Best Documentary Feature, and Reyka Zehtabchi won Best Documentary Short Subject for a film about menstruation, Period. End of Sentence.
Jenkins' girlfriend gently reminded him that the makeup and hairstyling Oscar had gone to three white makeup and special effects artists. Still, the other wins show "change is afoot," Jenkins insisted. "The Academy is in such a strange time right now. Any time there's such a rapid, chaotic upending of these established systems, there's going to be these ripples and hiccups."
During an interview with The Week, Jenkins said that progress is being made, much to his delight. He's witnessed this evolution from the front row since 2017, when he was nominated for Best Director and won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture for Moonlight. That year, Jenkins remembered, he was given a gigantic Oscars gift bag stocked with a voucher for a trip to a Tuscan villa and, bizarrely, a defibrillator.
But Moonlight's Best Picture win was marred by distraction. In a moment that will forever live in Academy Awards infamy, La La Land was briefly named the winner before the honor was correctly bestowed on Moonlight.
As a result, Jenkins said, the landmark victory of a film directed by a black man, starring black actors, about a man and his sexuality did not receive the notice it deserved. Instead, "all anybody talked about was the damn thing with the envelope, which was the fault of one man," Jenkins mused. "What got obscured was that this body that we always say is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and incapable of looking at something that's not their point of view actually did [look further], because the movie did win Best Picture. But that got obscured by this dumbass thing with the envelope."
The Tuesday after the Oscars, Jenkins spent the day at the University of Redlands in Southern California, meeting with students and chatting about how he got to where he is today. College, he told them, is not the time to make good films or write decent screenplays. "You need to find people who you enjoy making things with, and really hold onto them and grow with them," he said. "That was my experience. My cinematographer, editors, producers are all people I met when I was in film school."
And though he came fresh from the Oscars, to the students, Jenkins was "just a dude," he said. "I think it's important to remind people of that. I think it's why our politicians sometimes get so grossly powerful, because we forget that they're just people, warts and all."
The night before the Academy Awards, Jenkins was named Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards. During his acceptance speech, he echoed sentiments shared by King when she won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Globes in January. She called on Hollywood to support and hire more women and pledged to ensure that everything she produces is "50 percent women."
"There was a lot of energy around her speech," Jenkins said, and while the ideas weren't new, King was able to amplify the message. Jenkins said he was later thanked by a few people — mostly women — for doing likewise, but he "didn't hear a sweeping co-sign from men."
His production company is comprised of two men and two women, and Jenkins said his "hope is other men in the industry are operating the same way, [even if] they just don't have the platform or pulpit to announce they're doing those things."
A director is constantly making choices, but for Jenkins, respecting women's experiences can mean releasing that decision-making power to others. While shooting If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel, Jenkins was asked by King, KiKi Layne, and Teyonah Parris about their characters' identities, motivations, and feelings. "Oftentimes, you're drawing from personal experience," he said. "Things that happened to you, emotions you felt, or emotions you've caused in other people. But I'm not a woman, and James Baldwin's not a woman, so if this actress approaches me with a question about her character, who am I to tell her what that feels like?"
So if an actress expressed a strong opinion on how her character would act, Jenkins felt like "I didn't have any standing to say, 'No, that's not how a woman feels right now,'" he said. "What the f--k do I know about how a woman feels?" Deferring to them, he said, "really directly improved the movie."
Jenkins is now working on a screenplay about the life of professional boxer Claressa Shields, as well as a drama series based on the Colson Whitehead novel The Underground Railroad. When it comes time to settle in and start writing, Jenkins channels his inner vampire.
"Writing is such a strange thing," he said, adding that he needs a certain type of vibe. "I want to be in public, and I want to be like a vampire. I want to be around everyday energy and want to be around other people, but I don't want to engage with them."