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Barry Jenkins Is Optimistic About The Future Of Hollywood: ‘I Have To Be’

Filmmaker Barry Jenkins at a premiere, standing in front of a background with the Netflix logo.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins
(Emma McIntyre
Getty Images)
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At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins wasn’t there for the premiere of a film of his own, he was there to help correct the canon.

As the 2021 festival’s guest director, Jenkins selected Med Hondo’s “West Indies,” Claire Denis’ “Chocolat,” Isaac Julien’s “Looking for Langston,” Adi Barash’s “Garden,” Aleksandr Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” and a collection of short works by visual artist Kahlil Joseph.

The filmmaker says his goal was to spotlight these films and ask: “Why are these things not canon? Is it their fault? Is it anything that has to do with the merit of the films? Or is it our fault for actively ignoring or not engaging with this work?”

It was also a way of transforming Telluride, which Jenkins has been involved with for nearly 20 years, even at one point running the festival’s concessions operation and perfecting the popcorn recipe.

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“I’ve found Telluride to be a wonderful home, warm, vital and invigorating,” Jenkins’ preface to his film selections in the festival’s program guide reads. “Yet it could be more Black. It could be gayer, it could be more experimental, more queer.”

The same could be said about Hollywood itself. And when it comes to where the industry is headed, and whether necessary changes are being made, Barry Jenkins says he’s optimistic. He spoke with LAist's John Horn at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival.

The Role Of Film Festivals

Q: In terms of what festivals mean for movies, and for a certain kind of movie that isn't a big studio film, is there any way to quantify the importance of a festival? Or maybe you could just talk from personal experience about what your career would be without a festival?

In a very practical sense, film festivals are these gathering places of both filmmakers and film lovers. And different categories of filmmakers. There's directors, there’s producers, all these other people who collectively create the film industry — whether that's the Hollywood film industry, or the indie film industry, or just the completely off the beaten path, fine art film industry. A film festival is a great place to harness all those things at once. And the friction between that can be really wonderful.

For me personally, so many of the people who I work with now I met going to film festivals. “Moonlight” came to be because I was at this film festival, and reconnected with Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner of Plan B, when they were here with “12 Years a Slave” and so had I not been at the festival — that was probably my 12th year here — had I not been here, maybe “Moonlight” doesn't happen, or at least doesn't happen in the way that it did.

Q: What about the role of film festivals in introducing people to films that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter on their own? 

I think it's super important. I originally came here to Telluride through the student program, and so I always speak to the students when I come. And I was speaking to the high school students yesterday, and we were talking about TikTok, and this young woman was saying how she loves TikTok because when she opens TikTok, she knows she's not gonna see anything that she doesn't like, because the algorithm is only showing her things she's gonna love. And I was like, ‘Yeah, but what's gonna happen if that continues to be the case?’ And she thought about it and she goes, ‘Oh, yeah.’

And I think a film festival’s the same way — I think coming here on blind faith, and also rigging the schedule so that you can't possibly see every single thing you want, it kind of engenders this scenario where you do just go into a screening on blind faith and you discover something. Case in point, I’m programming “Russian Ark” in my guest director program this year, and that's the kind of film that I wouldn't go to a film festival hoping to see, but once you sit down in the auditorium, the film just washes over you.

Changing The Film Canon

Q: I was talking with Riz Ahmed the other night, he was honored at the festival. He’s a Pakistani Brit, and he went to a fancy prep school, and we were talking about the literary canon that he was exposed to. And it was Sophocles, Milton, Shelley, Dickens, Shakespeare, Homer — all white authors. And I’m wondering how you think the canon — literary or in film school, or just in people's education — needs overhauling? Do you think there's a role that film festivals have in that?

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I think unquestionably. And, you know, I did not go to a prep school, I went to a very run-of-the mill, inner-city high school with very little resources. So the canon for me growing up was Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. And it was “Coming to America” and “House Party.” So it was this very particular kind of Black experience. And then I think for myself, coming to places like Telluride, and then just getting on the internet and going to video stores, I tried to create my own canon, discovering things like “Daughters of the Dust,” Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep.”

We think of the canon as being a passive sort of endeavor, but it's a very active endeavor. Things are in the canon because people want them there. And we have to say, by default, things are not in the canon because people don't want them there.
— Barry Jenkins

So we think of the canon as being a passive sort of endeavor, but it's a very active endeavor. Things are in the canon because people want them there. And we have to say, by default, things are not in the canon because people don't want them there. So I think the role of a film festival or a museum, any of these curatorial institutions, is to actively seek out — I love this quote, ‘It's not what you're looking at, it’s what you see’ — and sometimes we can look into cinema’s past and we don't see these things that are right in our faces. And so, in my program there’s this film “West Indies” by Med Hondo, which came out September 19, 1979, almost 42 years to the day, and very few people have seen or heard of this film. And when you watch it, you very clearly understand, ‘In 1979, this thing existed?’ It should be canon. It should be like on the wall, when you first walk in, you look to your left, there's Med Hondo’s “West Indies.” And yet it hasn't been. And so when this job was given to me as guest director, you know, we all have to play an active role, I'm going to bring this thing into the center.

Improving Representation Below The Line

Q: Reinaldo Marcus Green, who just directed “King Richard” [about Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams] and made a great independent movie called “Monsters and Men,” I was asking him about diversity behind the camera, and where progress has to be made, and here’s what he had to say: 

It's important for everybody, not just [for] our films. It's important in other films that aren't predominantly Black or Latino, to be doing that. And that's where I think the change really needs to happen. It shouldn't just be on Black movies, this should be happening on, you know, Brad [Pitt]’s movies and Leo[nardo Dicaprio]'s movies, like - what is the representation on those films?

I thought it was a really good point. That it’s completely unfair for people of color to have to lead this change. I'm just curious what your reaction is to what Reinaldo had to say because I'm just trying to figure out in my own mind, how change is going to come about, and how it's going to come about faster?

I think Rei’s prescription was pretty spot on, especially because Black filmmakers aren't the only ones creating Black content, and aren't the only ones telling Black stories. I mean, you can look at Taylor Hackford’s work going way back — he's told some white stories, but he's told some non-white stories — I wonder what those crews were like.

And I think in that way, I was listening to Rei during the Q&A for “King Richard” and he was talking about having someone from the Williams family in the wardrobe department and how that was so key. Something would come off the truck, and she goes, ‘No, no, no, no. They would never wear that.’ And I think of sometimes being on my sets, especially in the hair department, and someone may be coming out of the truck and be like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. You can't go out like that,’ you know? I think these things are very important for authenticity. But I think also, we can’t expect that within the industry, the only place diversity can flourish is in the making and the telling of Black and Brown stories. So I do agree with him.

I think also, again, talking about the canon. My editor Joi McMillon, is famous for being the first and only Black woman ever nominated for an Academy Award for editing. And yet, now we've continued to make all this work, and the woman can't get nominated anywhere else. It’s like, ‘Okay, cool. We did that.’ And it's not that her work is getting any worse. To be honest, it's getting absolutely better. And we did this 10 episode show [“The Underground Railroad”] of which she edited five episodes, one of which [“Indiana Winter”] is so unbelievably extraordinary. I mean, what she does with that, we ride so many different waves of tone and form and scale. Couldn't even scratch the surface. And so it's like, ‘Well, yeah, it was progress when she did that thing. But now you can go ahead and slip on back to the back.’

All these kids got to spend 116 days getting some chops. And I guarantee, 10 years from now, quite a few of those folks are going to be running their own crews. That's how it happens, man.
— Barry Jenkins

Q: I think where real change comes about, is when people in positions of leadership in Hollywood, who are deciding what is and is not going to get made, aren't just saying, ‘I'm not racist,’ but they're being anti-racist. What do you make of that?

Yeah, there's that, and it's also how things are being made. I'm just surrounded by so many people who were living a wonderful example of the things we're talking about. Our first assistant director on “The Underground Railroad,” this woman named Liz Tan, she's of Asian descent, from New Zealand, and she comes up through the Taika [Waititi] sort of group of creators. And her crew are these people that she came up with. And yet, she said very quickly, ‘I'm going to hire a whole new crew to do this show, because there's going to be so many extras. And when they walk on set, they need to be spoken to by someone who looks like them, who they know can very clearly identify with the emotions they're going through, as they're performing these very heavy, heavy tasks that they have to complete in order to make the show.’

So she completely reset her crew. She hired completely locally, almost exclusively Black and Brown folks because it was so clear — these are the people who are going to be actively touching the cast as they're out there, actively instructing them to do these sometimes very horrific things. And I've seen people do that before, but this was such an extreme example because it definitely made her job harder. She had to relearn her crew. And yet she knew this was the right thing to do. It was worth it. It made the piece better. I think that's a way [she showed] not only am I not racist, I’m anti-racist. I'm going to put that into practice right now.

And it made the work better. The work did not suffer. The work was only better. And all these kids got to spend 116 days getting some chops. And I guarantee, ten years from now, quite a few of those folks are going to be running their own crews. That's how it happens, man.

Of course I'm optimistic. I have to be. But it can't stop with us. We have to keep building and building and building.
— Barry Jenkins

Hollywood's Promises For Change

Q: Entertainment companies and arts institutions, after the racial justice protests sparked by Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd last year, started to make pledges to change. How is the proof going to be manifest for Hollywood? And do you think they're empty promises? Or do you think there's going to be material change?

I think it's hard to say. I listen to so much of this stuff and try to read so many interviews, especially with people who I think are smarter than me and who have their heels dug in deeper than mine. And, you know, I agree with Ava [DuVernay]. In a recent interview Ava said, ‘You know, I think that people made a lot of promises, and let's give them time to see if they come through.’ And I think with all these things, too often, just me referencing Joi [McMillon], this progress — it's a moment. And then it's like, but then we're two years out, three years out, five years out: ‘Oh, did I say that? Oh, I forgot. Oh, let's go do this thing.’ ‘Isn't that great Rei just made ‘King Richard’? Isn't that awesome?’ But it's like, no, no, go talk to Rei, and really see what he thinks about what's happening in the industry. And so I think that it's hard to say. You know, let's give it three, four or five years and see what's happening.

Q: Are you optimistic?

I am optimistic. I have to be. You know, Rei Green is kind of a friend of mine. I kind of came up with his older brother Rashaad Ernesto Green. They're not too different in age, but Rashaad was my generation. I think Rei is like a half generation behind and seeing him here with this film [“King Richard”], with how much of his voice is in it? I mean, absolutely.

I mean hell, 10 years ago, myself, Rashaad Ernesto Green and Ryan Coogler sat down in a cafe in Oakland about three weeks before “Fruitvale Station” premiered. Three Black indie film directors — I made “Medicine for Melancholy,” Rashad had made “Gun Hill Road” and Ryan had made this film “Fruitvale [Station]” that nobody has seen yet. And we just sat there and had lunch. And we just looked around and I looked at Ryan, I said, ‘Man, you have no idea what's about to happen.’ And now here it is in 2021, I've programmed six films at this festival, Rei has this really wonderful big studio movie, Ryan's directing a sequel to one of the most lucrative franchises in the world that empowers people. I mean it's just like, yeah, of course I'm optimistic. I have to be. But it can't stop with us. We have to keep building and building and building.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.