‘Moonlight’ director talks background, students’ potential following campus screening
by Kelly Norris
EVANSTON – Start paying attention to your peers, because the next billionaire entrepreneur is at Northwestern according to Academy Award winning director Barry Jenkins.
The full crowd at Ryan Auditorium cried, laughed and cheered on Saturday during a “Moonlight” Screening and talkback with director Jenkins, hosted by A&O Productions, Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, Inspire Media and Rainbow Alliance.
“The next Mark Zuckerberg is in this room,” Jenkins said as the undergraduates erupted into applause. “And she is gonna send us all to space.”
The conversation, moderated by English professor Thomas Bradshaw, touched on Jenkins’ past as a filmmaker, challenges of adapting a play for the movie screen and the success of “Moonlight.”
“Moonlight” received three Academy Awards in 2016, including Best Picture after “La La Land” was accidentally announced Best Picture winner. Bradshaw timidly asked about the mistake inciting laughter from both the audience and Jenkins.
In his response, Jenkins said that for the two minutes before the mistake was discovered, he was fine with not winning.
“You see the memes,” Jenkins said about his face after the announcement. “When the switch happened all the words just got pulled right out of me. It was a dream I never allowed.”
The unique way of receiving the Best Picture award matched the nature of “Moonlight” Jenkins said. The film is about a young man growing up and discovering his sexuality in a low-income African American neighborhood in Miami. Although he and the crew often tried to not think about how distinct the film was, Jenkins said it was easy to feel something different while creating the movie.
For many in the Miami neighborhood where filming took place, “Moonlight” brought unspoken topics like drug use and education to the center of conversation, according to Jenkins.
During the talk Jenkins revealed that the $1.3 million low budget didn’t allow for any rehearsals. Also, many of the children in the movie had never acted before “Moonlight.”
For Jenkins though, the most important part of the film was his connection to it. He grew up in the setting of the film and went through many of the issues plaguing the main character, such as struggles with family and poverty.
“There’s just so much of [‘Moonlight’] that I’m tied to,” Jenkins said. “For reasons I could never articulate to anyone else.”
But that didn’t stop him from trying to articulate parts of the film to students. He especially connected with sophomore Michelle Zhang who submitted a question for the discussion.
“When the question went up on the screen behind [Jenkins], Thomas Bradshaw didn’t even know where to begin because the question was so long,” Zhang said. “It was an interesting moment because everyone around me started looking at me and watching both Thomas Bradshaw and Jenkins laugh about this question.”
Jenkins called Zhang ‘woke’ for her question, which asked about how “Moonlight” used lighting technique to highlight black skin, rather than fade it as traditional Hollywood lighting does. He referred to Zhang again several times throughout the talkback. He even asked her which chapter of the film was her favorite.
“It was cool to see how personable Barry was… and his acknowledgment that anyone with humble beginnings can have an impact on the world whether it’s in art or science” Zhang said. “It’s not necessarily that a student at Northwestern will be the one person to change the world but his sentiment really resonated with me… young people are so willing to be part of the change they want to see and ‘Moonlight’ winning Best Picture this year is such an example of that.”