Revisiting Barry Jenkins's past through ‘My Josephine’

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 - 5:17pm

NOSELL

Florida State University School of Motion Picture, Television and Recording Arts

 

With “Moonlight” racking up eight Academy Award nominations, director Barry Jenkins is one of the year’s most loved critic’s darling. But once upon a time, he was a scrappy young filmmaker trying to make it like everyone else. His first student film, “My Josephine” is a peek into that era. 

He tweeted that sharing the film was “a reminder to myself to channel this energy, to create.”

Written and directed shortly after 9/11, the film follows two Arab immigrants, Aadid and Adela, working in a laundromat, cleaning US flags for free in the wake of the attack.

In a contemplative Arabic voiceover, Aadid recalls the story of Napolean Bonaparte’s first wife Josaphine, the one he married for love. Adela is his Josephine. With the reverence he gives to the American flags, it seems that his country is, too.

Aadid’s words take shape with the film’s lyrical cinematography. In woozy green-blue hues, the camera alternates between blurriness and focus. A moving screen filled entirely with light or darkness sharpens into focus, revealing Adela, the laundromat, the American flag – the pillars around which Aadid’s life is built.

Like with “Moonlight,” Jenkins prioritizes the personal over the political, and in doing so, achieves both. He zeroes in on the lives of his characters, drawing out empathic details from ordinary Americans living ordinary lives.

At a time where their loyalty to the country is questioned, Aadid and Adela exhibit the fundamental guiding principles of the American Dream. That despite discrimination, their patriotic love for America endures. Work hard. Build a new life. Fall in love.

Aadid and Adela sit on folding chairs outside the laundromat talking for hours, they dance late in the night. He outlines the care they take when washing the flags, to protect and preserve the dignity inherent in the stars and stripes. A murky underwater shot shows arms reaching out to softly brush their fingers against the American flag, to grasp the American Dream in their own hands.

Jenkins’s body of work is a welcome addition to mainstream media. “Moonlight” ‘s overwhelming critical popularity represents a shift in the way the general public receives films featuring black characters. In the past, most of the Black Oscar winners have come from roles as slaves or domestic maids, like “12 Years a Slave” or “The Help.” This reveals a critical fact about viewer proclivities: The majority white Oscar voters are more likely to appreciate storylines featuring minority characters if they support their vision of what a “minority life” entails.

The missing step is to encourage more than just diversity – a numbers game, increasing the number of minority faces on screen and in high-level roles behind the scene – but also inclusion, which involves understanding all facets of people’s lives. Inclusion means engaging with stories about racial oppression and discrimination, but at the same time, also taking care to hear the other parts of people of color’s lives, too. Both of these components are critical to improving media representation.

Jenkins is one of many talented filmmakers of color who tell honest stories about ordinary characters. Most of them go unnoticed by mainstream audiences not because they are objectively better or worse than films about the history of oppression, but simply because they feature themes that the general public is not as interested in. Jenkins’ success in this year’s Oscar nominations signals that audiences may finally begin to appreciate a wider variety of storylines, and take early steps in the direction of inclusion.