Two years ago, director Barry Jenkins stepped up on stage to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture for Moonlight. It should have been the proudest moment in his life. Yet it arrived after the biggest gaffe in Oscars history.

Announcer Warren Beatty had been given the wrong envelope and his co-presenter Faye Dunaway read out the winner as La La Land. Golden statues had already been handed out and speeches begun when the mistake was addressed. Jenkins walked on stage amid confusion, instead of the triumph he was entitled to.

Did it ruin his moment of glory? "Aach," he says. "I can't lie, yeah, it did. But I think it also ruined what I thought was a really wonderful gesture by the Academy in recognising this work that we typically assume the membership can't identify with."

It's the morning after the 2019 nominations have been announced, Jenkins hasn't had a coffee yet, but he's focused and articulate, sharply dressed. His new film, If Beale Street Could Talk, a gorgeously shot period adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 Harlem-set novel, has garnered three nominations, including one for Jenkins himself for Best Adapted Screenplay. "I'm feeling good about it," he says. "One of my goals in making this film was to bring James Baldwin to a larger audience."

This year's Oscar ceremony has already had to deal with another embarrassment, after its host, comedian Kevin Hart, quit when it emerged he had made homophobic tweets several years ago, including describing someone as "a gay billboard for Aids", for which he has since apologised. I wonder if Jenkins is glad that Hart is no longer hosting. (It has been reported that the event will no longer have one host, but a roster of high-profile talent sharing the honours.)

Director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins. Photo / AP
Director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins. Photo / AP

"Ha," he says. "It became a story unto itself, and the Academy Awards should be about the films ... I think where we ended up is probably best for all parties."

Moonlight was the first LGBT-themed film to win the honour. Its lead character, Chiron, who faces the trials of growing up gay in the black community in Miami, is a largely autobiographical portrait of Jenkins, apart from his sexuality. Does he think the film had an effect on homophobia among black Americans? "I think so, and not just among black Americans, but ... I do think that within the black community, for reasons [to do with] pure defence mechanisms, that these conversations ... maybe we haven't had as much as we should."

Jenkins's follow-up is a love story set in a time of deep-seated prejudice. It follows KiKi Layne's Tish and Stephan James's Fonny, two young lovers who have been inseparable since childhood, as they navigate the wrongful arrest of Fonny for a brutal rape.

It's a moving, sometimes troubling, film, but as with Moonlight its love scenes are sensitive and tenderly shot. "Sex is not something I'm interested in visually or cinematically," Jenkins says, "but the feeling of expectation, of hope, around sensuality is."

Jenkins grew up poor in the housing estates of Liberty City in Miami. His father left his mother when she was still pregnant with him. Like the character played by Naomie Harris in Moonlight, she became addicted to crack cocaine when he was a child, and Jenkins was brought up by another woman in an overcrowded apartment.

I ask him if it has been possible to repair things with his mother. "It's a complicated relationship. Making the movie opened a space for us to talk, but that conversation's still ongoing."

Prejudice reared its head for Jenkins even after the success of Moonlight. After a prestigious Academy dinner, Jenkins was going to an after-party, but was warned by the hotel parking valet that the driver who was about to take him there had referred to Jenkins using the N-word and added, "Oh, and he's probably going to get nominated for Best Director."

Barry Jenkins says the Moonlight Oscars gaffe ruined the moment and overshadowed the Academy's gesture of honouring the film. Photo / AP
Barry Jenkins says the Moonlight Oscars gaffe ruined the moment and overshadowed the Academy's gesture of honouring the film. Photo / AP

Jenkins zeroed in on the subtext of the driver's words: "'But he's still just a n*****'." Does he think every prominent black celebrity could tell a similar story? "Of course," he says. "This guy knew who I was. I can't imagine what it was like to be a celebrity in the 90s, the 80s."


I ask him how angry he is about the black experience in the US, and how hard is it not to blame "the white man" in general. "It's incredibly difficult," he says, "When you consider black people were enslaved in America for longer than they've not been enslaved, to still hold resentment, [anger] ... is quite rational, and yet as an artist I just can't work from anger."

Beale Street is Jenkins's third film. Moonlight followed a frustrating gap of eight years following his debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy (2008).

He'd like to try something different after three "heavy" projects, the third of which is his much-anticipated adaptation for Amazon of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, about the 19th century network of routes for escaped slaves.

He rejects the suggestion he wouldn't do a Marvel film: "If it's the right character, of course. Every now and then I see a big ... popcorn movie and I just lose my shit. Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best films I've ever seen. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the best films I've seen this year. I would love to make one of those."

- Telegraph Group Ltd