Barry Jenkins: “Thank You So Damn Much For Writing the Things You Write”
Below is Barry Jenkins’s acceptance speech from PEN America’s 2018 LitFest Gala upon receiving the Award for Screenplay Excellence for If Beale Street Could Talk. The full list of winners, hosts, and honorees can be found here; the transcript has been slightly edited and condensed.
“Thank you very much. I don’t know what to say to a room full of people who are better educated than me and smarter than me. I have an undergraduate degree, you guys are all masters of literature and these things. I want to thank the piano lady . . . I got off the plane a couple hours ago, and I’m a little bit exhausted. I went into my closet, and the only thing I could find was this suit. It’s the first suit I ever bought. It’s from J Crew. It’s a size 38 small. I bought it 38 small because I couldn’t afford to get it tailored and the sleeves were short, so it fit. Putting it on in the car coming over here reminded me that the people at my table were my friends when I bought this suit. The rest of you, I had no chance of getting close to when I bought this suit. But the people at this table were all my friends when I bought this suit. My producers, my cinematographer, my editor, the guy I moved to LA with. These people who believed in me when I came to them with the script for Moonlight. I mean, hell, the people who believed in me when I said I needed $12,000 to make a film, and that film became Medicine for Melancholy. So when they said, you’re going to have people at your table, in addition to Justin and Julia, who are amazing authors, well-educated—Yale and all these other places, Stanford—I get to bring all my Florida State people with me. I wanted to bring them here because when you write a screenplay, very few people actually read the script. They go to the theater and see the film. And the film is so much more than the screenplay; it’s the result of all these producers and cinematographers and editors, all these people at my table. So a lot of applause for all my friends at the table.
And I’m going to be honest, man, when they told me that Ai Weiwei was going to be here, and he was getting an award, I told my publicist, ‘I don’t think I can accept that award. I can’t get an award at the same time that Ai Weiwei gets one.’ But she said, ‘Barry, don’t be ridiculous,’ and I realize now she was right because I’m so damn glad I’m here. But it did make me think about how I got to this stage, if I was going to walk up on this stage, and it’s kind of nice. Looking back, and realizing the company I was going to be in in this room, I started to look at my career. Looking back was much easier than looking forward. And I realized that my first job in the industry was working at Harpo Films. I worked for Ms. Winfrey’s company. My first job on any film set was an adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. While working at Harpo, I watched the adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and I also eavesdropped on a potential adaptation of Zadie Smith. And then the film that anybody knows me for is the adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who was also honored by this organization. You just watched clips from an adaption of James Baldwin, and I’m now working on an adaptation of Colson Whitehead, who was also honored by this organization. And so what I wanted to say was, if I can accept this award—which is very difficult for me to do—I wanted to accept it by thanking all of you people for originating the arts, the letters, the words, the interior voice which is so important to my work. Thank you so damn much for writing the things you write; for the literature, for the poetry, for the plays, for all of it, because for me, a visual storyteller, I get so much energy—I mean, literally, I’m a vampire, at this point, with these three films, just taking things from you—and so I refuse to accept this without saying thank you to all of you. So thank you.”
Watch Barry Jenkins’s speech and Alfre Woodard’s introductory remarks: