We were in a hotel suite with Central Park views and soft light that left a glare in his understated, dark eyeglasses. He made only fleeting eye contact, as if it derived from some nonrenewable inner resource.
“So what about all of the white boys and girls in Kansas or Missouri or Germany who might not have been exposed to our perspective?” Jenkins continued. “What would happen if they came and walked a mile in my shoes?”
He was raised in Liberty City, a low-income Miami neighborhood, to a single mother and a father he never knew. When he was a child, Jenkins’s mother became consumed by crack cocaine, and he spent much of his youth in varying degrees of isolation. In “Moonlight,” the main character’s mother, similarly afflicted by crack addiction and played by Naomie Harris, is a creature of both McCraney’s and Jenkins’s autobiographical recollections. Her converse can be found in “If Beale Street Could Talk,” in which a generous, watchful matriarch, played by Regina King in a Golden Globe-winning performance, reflects the director’s maternal ideal.
“I like to think about nature versus nurture, and what would happen if you took Naomie Harris’s character in ‘Moonlight’ and made her the mother in ‘Beale Street,’” Jenkins said. “And if you took Regina King’s character in ‘Beale Street’ and made her the mother in ‘Moonlight.’ How would that affect the children’s lives? How would it affect the families?”
Jenkins became a distinguished football player in high school and studied film at Florida State University. There, he found his tribe in a diverse crew of like-minded cinephiles — the cinematographer James Laxton, producer Adele Romanski, and editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon — with whom he has worked regularly ever since.
His debut feature, “Medicine for Melancholy” (2009), was a visually stylish and loosely philosophical relationship study about 20-somethings questioning love and identity in gentrified corridors of San Francisco. With its commingling of French new wave aesthetics, mumblecore austerity and pro-black politics, it prefigured the success of shows like “Atlanta,” “Dear White People” (Jenkins directed an episode of the first season) and “Insecure.”