EXCLUSIVE: Why Barry Jenkins Was in Tears After Directing 'Dear White People' Episode 5
By Stacy Lambe
“Intense.” It’s easily the one word to describe “Chapter V” of Justin Simien’s Netflix series, Dear White People.
“It was intense, bro,” says Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight, who stepped in to direct the episode, which is a largely satirical take on racial tension at a predominately white Ivy League-type campus told through the eyes of black students upended when campus security is called to a party and pulls a gun on a black student named Reggie (Marque Richardson).
The scene comes near the end of an episode that sees Reggie, a student activist, and his friends journey (via several enjoyable walk-and-talks) through campus from one event to the next before arriving at a party where he and a white student (Nolan Funk) get into a racially charged confrontation over singing the N word along to a Future song. As tensions rise and the music dies down, a campus security officer arrives, demanding to see Reggie’s ID (and not that of the white student). When Reggie initially refuses, a gun is pulled and pointed directly into his face. While defiant in the moment, Reggie is later seen in tears, sitting alone behind the closed door of his dorm room while his friend, Samantha (Logan Browning), knocks on the door to ask if he’s OK.
“I wish it wasn’t necessary, but it is very necessary commentary on the state of American life right now,” Jenkins says of the episode that continues to dismantle the notion of a postracial America in the era following the election of President Barack Obama, but also addresses the very timely issue of police brutality. (“I mean, sh*t, it’s 2017 and a kid just got killed in Texas,” the filmmaker told The Daily Beast, referring to 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.)
“This show is a reflection of so many things,” Jenkins says, while addressing bigoted commentary and reaction that initially followed the release of the series’ trailer. “It really is an invitation, not a provocation.”
Admittedly, the filmmaker had no idea what he was getting into. Fans of each other on social media, Simien -- who wrote and directed the 2014 Sundance hit from which the Netflix show is adapted -- and Jenkins hadn’t met until the former attended an early rough cut screening of Moonlight. A couple of weeks later, Simien reached out to Jenkins about directing an episode of Dear White People written by Chuck Hayward and Jack Moore.
Of course, this was well before Moonlight was on track to be nominated for (and eventually win) Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars. Yet, even then, Jenkins knew he would have limited time to do it -- 10 days, in fact -- as he busily traveled from one film festival to the next on the awards season circuit to promote Moonlight. But having seen Jenkins’ directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy, Simien was confident he could handle it. “It’s going to be a really easy episode … It’ll just be people walking and talking,” Jenkins recalls Simien telling him before getting the script and realizing: “Oh, this is not what this is.”
Yes, there were plenty of walk-and-talk scenes -- something Jenkins calls “shoe leather,” which he insisted was “going to be as interesting as the last five minutes” -- but it was a puzzle of an episode that was meant to be a day in the life while ending with some very heavy and nuanced emotions. “It was very taxing in a certain way,” Jenkins admits, while adding that he thinks of his role as a director to be a problem-solver. So, it was just a matter of “figuring sh*t out.”
While Reggie’s final scene was filmed on day one of a packed five-day shoot (the other five were for prep), everything else built up to the party scene, which was filmed over the last two nights. Jenkins had little time to spend with the actors and had to regroup very quickly in order to earn the gravitas that the party’s final moments deserved. “Every single take we did of that scene, everybody was just crying,” Jenkins says. “It felt like when that gun was pulled, it was pulled on everyone.”
As the director of the episode, Jenkins felt it was on him to “keep it in check.” Everyone may have been crying on set, but “I had to keep it all in,” he says, revealing that it wasn’t until the episode wrapped at 1 a.m. and he was in a car on the way to the airport to fly to New York City, where he was set to premiere Moonlight at the New York Film Festival, did it all wash over him. “I was so overwhelmed with emotion,” Jenkins says. “I vividly remember ending that scene [and] the tears in my eyes.”
And looking back on the experience that he’s previously said was not what he expected, Jenkins is grateful for the opportunity. Yes, it partly puts him in a box of being known how to expertly film walk-and-talk scenes (“It’s not my thing,” he admits), but it also challenged him in unexpected ways. It was the first time he’s worked with two cameras, and the whole episode required him to use the tools in his arsenal as a filmmaker. And it all boils down to Simien extending an invitation to be part of the Dear White People experience -- the only thing he was able to do as he focused much of his attention on promoting Moonlight. “I loved the opportunity to do it,” he says, adding: “Hopefully, some other friend or person who thinks I have something to say will present me with another challenge.”
While the filmmaker has since announced an upcoming Amazon adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, “Chapter V” of Dear White People serves as Jenkins’ only offering of 2017. Without Simien’s invitation, he says, he wouldn’t have anything to show for this year -- but he’s just as proud of it as he is of Moonlight. “It’s funny, Moonlight happened in 2016, but I made it in 2015,” Jenkins says. “This episode was the thing I put my 2016 into, and I’m so happy for Justin and everybody involved in the show that it’s being received so well.”