How Barry Jenkins’s Post-Oscars Mérida Trip Changed His Life

The Academy Award–winning director found comfort among the pyramids in Uxmal. 

BY MEREDITH CAREYOctober 6, 2021

“Months before the 2017 Oscars—the whole Moonlight-La La Land mix-up—I booked a flight to Mérida, Mexico. One of my guilty pleasures is watching House Hunters International, and I’d seen episodes set there with all these beautiful houses. Something told me I was going to want to get away when this was done. Solange has a song called “Cranes in the Sky,” and she says, “I tried to drink it away, I tried to change it with my hair”—something like that. I thought I’d go to Mérida and find a coffee shop and start writing The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s novel. But for the first half of the trip, I got nothing done. I didn’t realize how emotionally blunted I was from what had happened. I spent most of my time hanging around Coqui Coqui, this boutique hotel, or just walking around, getting a little bit of mezcal here, a little bit of mezcal there. I think I just needed a minute to process everything. But then I had a friend join me, and she mentioned that there were pyramids in the Yucatán. And I said, “That doesn’t make any sense; the pyramids are in Egypt.” Yes, I had heard of the Mayans, but growing up in the Miami projects, I never thought that I could take a 90-minute flight and be standing on top of a pyramid. So we got a guide and went from Mérida to Uxmal. 

On the way, we stopped at a flea market in this small town of about 11,000 people called Muna, where I found a bootleg copy of Moonlight. The driver told me that this town had a high concentration of transgender teenagers, so it made sense that my movie would be here. I was so moved. Once we got to Uxmal, it was just eye-opening. Though these structures aren’t in their best state after all the wear and tear they’ve been through, I couldn’t deny how magnificent they were. Pyramids built by people of color that are still standing—so close to where I’m from! It put into perspective how small the Oscars thing was. I shouldn’t have had to see these ancient pyramids to realize that, but my emotions were so heightened. Something about going to Uxmal opened me up again. I thought, I’m going to forget about this thing with the envelope, and I’m going to look forward to the work to come.” —As told to Meredith Carey

Barry Jenkins is the director of the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight and the Amazon series The Underground Railroad.