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Lena Waithe, Barry Jenkins (‘Moonlight’) on being Black in Hollywood

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Barry Jenkins, director of Academy Award winning ‘Moonlight,’ says it is ‘a really lovely honor’ to be nominated for his adapted screenplay of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ (Jan. 24)

Barry Jenkins and Lena Waithe understand what it means to be Black in the entertainment industry, and they revealed how they’re making space for other marginalized creators in Hollywood at the American Black Film Festival.

The Oscar-winning director of “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” and the “Twenties” and “The Chi” creator shared the virtual stage Tuesday during the film festival’s “Hot at Amazon Studios” panel. 

“We try to go out and do for others what the folks who made ‘Moonlight’ did for us,” Jenkins said about the work his Pastel production company does. “If you’re a person who has talent, and you’ve created great work but you don’t know how to make that next thing, we try to facilitate that.” 

Jenkins, whose latest project is a series adaptation for Amazon of Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad,” said the show’s “directing department was basically 90% BIPOC” (Black, Indigenous and people of color).

“There was only white dude in our directing department,” he said, noting that it’s not just about who calls action, but “making sure we’re doing what we can” to fill crews with people of color. 

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Lena Waithe and Barry Jenkins discuss making space for creators in Hollywood at the 2020 American Black Film Festival. (Photo: Getty Images)

For Waithe, creating space isn’t as simple as pulling up a literal chair to a table. “It definitely takes work,” she said.

“We know you’re excited about Hollywood, but what are you interested in? What do you like?” Waithe said. “A lot of times it’s people saying ‘Oh, I want to be a movie star,’ but actually their sensibilities fit more of a costume designer, or they’re like ‘I want to be a director’ but actually they’re really much better about production design.” 

Part of what Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions does is to “actually help people to understand all the jobs that it requires to be on set.”

Creating connections within the industry, building bridges for people from communities not often represented in Hollywood, and fostering healthy work environments is all necessary to see more stories come to life onscreen, Waithe says.

“I try to really think about just brass tacks. How is this actually going to work? How is this going to play out? Because it’s never a good thing when people get on the project and don’t have fun doing it,” Waithe said. “We’re trying to help people out” with mentoring, writing classes, acting and coaching “because the truth is, people want to do the thing, but don’t really know how.”

Jenkins and Waithe joined “Girls Trip” writer Tracy Oliver; “Them: Covenant” creator Little Marvin; “Selah and the Spades” writer/director Tayarisha Poe; and “Sylvie’s Love” writer/director Eugene Ashe in the conversation, moderated by Latasha Gillespie, Amazon Studios’ head of global diversity, equity and inclusion.

ABFF will run through Aug. 30 and is streaming more than 90 films celebrating Black cinema, as well as panel discussions featuring Kenya Barris, Gabrielle Union, “Candyman” director Nia DaCosta and Mary J. Blige.

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