‘Moonlight’ Director Barry Jenkins on His Game-Changing ‘Dear White People’ Episode
Barry Jenkins talks to The Daily Beast about directing ‘Dear White People,’ his own streaming series ‘Underground Railroad,’ and how he’s feeling about the Oscars these days.
Dear White People creator Justin Simien was one of the first people to see a rough cut of Moonlight. This was before the film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival, before The New York Times wondered aloud if it was “the year’s best movie,” and long before it won Best Picture during the most dramatic moment in Oscars history.
At the time, Simien was just starting to put together the writers’ room for the Netflix adaptation of his own Sundance hit and decided to ask the man behind Moonlight to direct an episode. Jenkins wasn’t sure he could make it work, given his busy schedule promoting Moonlight. It was set to shoot during his only break in the long festival season: between the Toronto International Film Festival in September and the New York Film Festival in October of last year, with the episode’s climactic party scene wrapping at 1 a.m. the morning he had to fly to New York to premiere Moonlight in the Big Apple. But Simien assured him it would be easy.
Likening the episode to Jenkins’ first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, released eight years before Moonlight, Simien said, “It’ll be really chill. It’ll just be people walking and talking.” But when Jenkins got the script a couple of months later, he realized, “Oh, it starts out that way, but it’s not how it ends up.
“When I got to the set, at first I was like, ‘Oh shit, what am I getting into?’” Jenkins tells The Daily Beast. It had been nearly a year since he had directed anything. The idea of directing the more comedic elements “terrified” him. “For the first 36 hours of it, I was petrified,” he says, worrying, “Maybe I’m not the guy that they’ve been saying I am in these reviews of Moonlight. Maybe I’m just a guy who doesn’t know a damn thing about filmmaking.”
If you’ve seen the episode, you know that’s far from the case.
When you first watch the episode, it’s impossible to know the significance of those words for the students at Winchester University. But this is the episode of the show where everything changes. This is the episode that “goes there” on police brutality. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
“From the very, very, very beginning, I knew that at the midpoint of the show, we had to go there,” creator and showrunner Justin Simien told The Daily Beast when we spoke last month. “There was disagreement about how to do it, which character it should involve, but I knew that we had to do that in the middle of the show. Because I just felt like to do a show called Dear White People in this day and age and not address that particular issue, it felt false and it felt irresponsible.” For a while, he worried that the issue might be “played out.” But then he realized, “it’s never played out if it’s still happening every day or every other week.”
Each episode of Simien’s series, based on his 2014 film of the same name, focuses its attention on a different student at the fictional Ivy League school. This one tells the story of Reggie Green, beautifully portrayed by Marque Richardson, who played the same role in the film.
We get a glimpse of the micro—and not so micro—aggressions Reggie has to endure on campus on a daily basis. The white woman running away from the ATM when she sees he’s next in line, the football coach mistaking him for a member of the team.
After the outrage that follows the blackface Halloween party we see in Episode 1, Reggie wants to make sure the black students on campus don’t let the “revolution” die. But it’s Saturday. And as his friend Joelle tells him, “Sometimes being carefree and black is an act of revolution.” Reluctantly, he agrees.
For a while, the episode maintains a laid-back feel, as Reggie and his friends walk and talk through campus as jazz plays in the background. They “hate-watch” a movie called Oh No She Didn’t and eat breakfast for dinner. When someone suggests going to a party, Reggie asks, “How can y’all party when there’s shit like this going?” He points to a Donald Trump-inspired “Make Campus Safe Again” sign on the wall and adds, “You know who they’re talking about. We need to wake this campus up!”
Instead, they end up at the party, where Reggie schools his white classmates in a game of “tipsy trivia,” declaring, gleefully, “This game is culturally biased against me and I’m still whooping that ass!”
Everything is going so well. Until it isn’t.
Future’s “Trap Niggas” comes on and Reggie’s white trivia partner starts singing along, “N-word” and all. Reggie asks him to stop, and the situation escalates quickly. The cops are called and before we know it, one of them is pointing his gun at Reggie. The episode’s entire tone changes in an instant. No one is laughing anymore and the danger feels all too real and extremely familiar.
The tension is ultimately diffused and no one is physically hurt. But Reggie, and this excellent first season of Dear White People, are forever changed.
As a filmmaker, Jenkins realized it was his job to “solve problems,” which in this case meant finding the “transitions between comedy, romance, and ultimately this tense act of emotional violence that almost becomes actual violence.”
Giving credit where credit is due to Chuck Hayward and Jack Moore, who wrote “Chapter V” along with the rest of the writing team, Jenkins describes the second half of the episode as a “sneak attack.” He adds, “That party starts and you have no idea that it could end the way it does.” Looking around the room, we see this diverse “cornucopia of the future generations of America” all getting along. But then things go “off the rails.”
“This is how quickly things happen in America. I mean, shit, it’s 2017 and a kid just got killed in Texas,” Jenkins says, referring to 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was recently shot by a police officer while in a car of teens driving away from a high-school party.
“I just wanted people to get that no matter where you are, no matter what your class is or how much money you have or what your education level is, it is still fatal in this country to be black. It is still fatal,” Simien says. “And I don’t think people get how real that fear is that we carry with us, that black people carry with us every day. Anybody in the wrong part of town, in a hoodie, could befall the same fate and I don’t think people really get that. So we had to bring that to Winchester.”
Speaking to Vulture last month, Marque Richardson said, “Barry is an amazing human being—so generous, so kind, very specific on what he wants. Throughout that episode, we had a mind meld. There was communication there, but it wasn’t always through words. I felt like we got each other, just being young black men alive today in America. I got what he needed from a look and he got what I needed from a look, if that makes sense. It was unspoken because this is us. Same with Justin.”
Jenkins agrees. “There was not a lot of intellectualizing that had to happen for us all to get on the same page about that character’s journey,” he adds.
“I don’t think that I could have entrusted that episode into anybody else’s hands,” Simien adds. “Everything about it said I’ve got to have Barry on this show and I’ve got to have him do this episode.”
Having waded into the world of streaming television, Jenkins is about to dive in a lot deeper when he writes and directs Amazon’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad later this year. “I don’t think anybody wants to sit down and watch five hours of Moonlight,” he says, laughing, but he is excited about having that broader canvas for his next project.
It’s been just over two months since Jenkins’ unexpectedly tense Best Picture win at the Oscars, a cultural moment that was “so loud,” he says, that the “echo” continues to ring in his head. Within just a few minutes, he experienced a rollercoaster of emotion, from thinking he’d lost the award to La La Land, to realizing he had actually won after all, thanks to the envelope mix-up heard round the world. “I keep thinking that I’ll outrun the echo, but no, it’s still there,” he adds. “It’s definitely receding though.”
He’s not surprised that everyone he meets still wants to talk about it. “And to be brutally, brutally honest, it’s still something I’m processing,” he says. “Because after making the film, releasing the film, what happened was not my expectation. And I’m not talking about winning Best Picture, I’m talking about having something that I created be so centered in the conversation. When you add on to that the way it transpired, it has a way of continuously inserting itself into your psyche.
“Because of what I got to experience in the moment, I can’t say that I would rather it be different,” he says of the way he won. What happened was “so wholly unique,” he adds, that it ended up “carrying the voice of the film even further than a straight-up win would have.” And “ultimately, a world where more people know who the character Chiron is, is to me at least, a better world.”
Jenkins does think sometimes about the “roar” that greeted his and Tarell McCraney’s win for Best Adapted Screenplay earlier in the night. “It moves me to no end,” he says of that moment. “And I can’t imagine—or I’m forced to imagine now—what the roar would have been like had they very simply said, ‘And Best Picture goes to Moonlight.’” He not only regrets that he didn’t get to experience that, but also knows there were a lot of “people back home who would have loved to experience that as well and didn’t get to.”
“It’s bittersweet, man,” he says. When I tell him he’ll just have to wait until “next time,” Jenkins lets out a loud laugh and says, “Yeah, indeed.”
The last thing we see at the end of Dear White People’s fifth episode is Reggie, sobbing uncontrollably on the floor of his dorm room, while his one-time love interest Sam tries to get him to say something—anything—on the other side of his door.
Jenkins reveals that he actually filmed that final moment with Marque Richardson on day one of the five-day shoot. The shot has been described as a zoom, but Jenkins carefully explains that it was actually a wide lens on a dolly. He wanted Richardson to feel the camera coming closer to him.
“I’m not telling him, OK, look at the camera now,” he says of that last moment. “That’s Marque feeling that the camera is close and now is the time to share his pain with the audience.”
“I think Barry really understood Reggie, really understood the nature of that kind of pain,” Simien adds. “And just really connected with that character. And of course Barry is just a master director so, you know, he brought so much to that process.”
Jenkins says he also saw some parallels between the protagonist of this episode and his main character in Moonlight. “There is a continuum on which Chiron and Reggie both live,” he says. For one, there is the “obvious” fact that they are both “young black men in America trying to navigate society.”
But beyond that, he says, “One of the commentaries in Moonlight is about masculinity and about nurture versus nature and about the context of your environment. You assume that what ends up happening to Reggie at the end of Episode 5 is something that won’t happen in the hallowed halls of Winchester University. It seems much more likely to happen on the corner in the world of Moonlight.”
He pauses. “Justin very clearly saw that I understood that is not the case and that these things can happen anywhere.”