There is a poetry in cinema. A moviegoer might not realize it in the moment, but there is something magnetic about the way the dialogue and images bend and twist into one another, creating a narrative and allowing us to fall in love with a character, story, or even a moment. While the directors and actors are often recognized for their work —it’s the editors who work tirelessly during post-production to make sure that the filmmaker’s vision comes to life. Editor Joi McMillon, one of the only Black female feature film editors in Hollywood, is responsible for assembling Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight and his latest work — If Beale Street Could Talk.
McMillon’s journey in Hollywood has been fraught with curving roads and alternative paths that began in the editing room for various reality television series. After years of hard work, in 2017, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Film Editing with her co-editor Nat Sanders. She was the first Black woman to ever nominated in the category. Now, on the eve of If Beale Street Could Talk’s premiere, McMillon talked with Shadow and Act about her career, how she approaches her craft, and why this is just the beginning for her.
“When Barry and Nat [Sanders], my co-editor, let me know that I was gonna be an editor on Moonlight, at first I couldn’t believe it,” McMillon remembered. “It’s one of those things where I’d been rejected so often on jobs that I felt were a good fit and the director and I had a good rapport, and the material spoke to me, only to be told, ‘no,’ a few weeks later. They’d say they’d gone with someone else, and it was interesting because a lot of times when people were telling me that they were going with someone else, they would say, ‘He is just a really good fit,’ or, ‘We’d work with him before.’ I was hearing ‘he’ and ‘him’ and I was like, ‘Oh, this is who I’m losing these opportunities to.'”
When her old friend and fellow Florida native Barry Jenkins called her up for Moonlight, McMillon realized that the film was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It would be her chance to really step into the spotlight in Hollywood. “It was one of those things where I just had to have faith in the fact that when I finally did land that opportunity I was gonna do the best job of my ability and show people that I deserve to be where I wanted to be,” she said. “I knew it was the type of opportunity that would either open doors for me or close doors. My parents never told us that we couldn’t do something. They said that we had the ability to be whatever we wanted to be. However, they never sugarcoated how hard it would be for us to achieve that. I come from a family of six, so my Dad was always telling us we had to give 150 percent. And for me, I remember being a kid and being like, ‘Well, why couldn’t I just give a hundred?!’ That’s just not how the world works. We definitely have to prove ourselves constantly.”
With Moonlight, McMillon obviously gave it her all and when awards season rolled around, she was recognized for her efforts. “It was interesting because I remember the first time that someone mentioned that if I did receive a nomination, that it would be a historical nomination because I’d be the first Black female to ever be nominated for an editing Academy Award,” she recalled. “That blew my mind. The only other Black person to be nominated for the editing Oscar was Hugh A. Robertson for Midnight Cowboy in 1970. I did feel the pressure to get the nomination, so, when it did happen, there was a wave of relief. I don’t like to count blessings before they happen, but I do think relief was the first thing I felt. Then as it settled in, it was monumental that this was my first feature, and to get this nomination was one of those things that you can’t really put into words. It was pretty amazing.”
With Moonlight under her belt, it was a no-brainer for McMillon to jump at Beale Street when Jenkins called again. “It’s funny because there’s never really a conversation of, ’Would you like to work with me on this?'” she laughed. “I feel like Barry’s my director, and we’re his editors, and we go where he goes. I knew the next project that we would collaborate on was either going to be If Beale Street Could Talk or The Underground Railroad. I knew those were both on his plate. When I found out If Beale Street Could Talk was the path that we were going to go down, I was really excited. There hasn’t been an American adaptation of a James Baldwin work except for now. That’s where the pressure came from because James Baldwin is just so iconic and his work is just so powerful. You do not want to do James Baldwin wrong. I feel like throughout the whole process, he was the one that we were constantly keeping track of and not losing his essence in the work. Barry said, if you walked away from this film thinking about him — thinking about Barry Jenkins, he didn’t do his job. This movie is about James Baldwin.”
Though she’d worked with Barry on Moonlight, the Florida State University alum had an entirely different approach when it came to capturing Baldwin’s lush Black love story on screen— especially since there actually isn’t much dialogue in Beale Street. “It’s funny because in Moonlight one of the challenges that we had was in the opening of Moonlight, your protagonist does not actually say anything to anyone,” McMillon reflected. “For a good seven minutes, it’s people talking to him — trying to get him to talk, but he’s not saying anything. So our main focus, when we were working on that film, was to keep the audience engaged and in Chiron’s perspective even though we had very minimum dialogue coming from this character.
With Beale Street — McMillon and Sanders had a different challenge altogether. “In Beale Street, it was actually kind of the opposite of [Moonlight],” the Oscar nominee pointed out. “A lot of times, we had Tish’s voice over which was written for the script. But there were some moments like the part where the Nina Simone song comes on and it’s Tish (Kiki Layne), Fonny (Stephan James), and Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry) having a meal together. That scene originally had dialogue going across it. Barry and I watched it a few times, and Barry was like, ‘The voice-over’s complicating what we’re already seeing. So let’s try pulling it out.’ We took it out, and he was like, ‘Yeah, it works without the voice-over.’ We wanted to preserve James Baldwin’s words, but also allow the imagery to operate on its own. Finding a balance between those things was one of the things that we really, really wanted to focus on, so the audience walks away feeling like they were immersed into the film.”
There will be no downtime for McMillon after Beale Street hits theaters. Up next, she has teamed up with Jenkins again for the adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad. Jenkins will direct all 11-episodes for a limited series which will air on Amazon. She’s also currently working on a film inspired by a viral Twitter tale that we’re sure you heard about. “I’m currently working on a film with Janicza Bravo called Zola,” McMillon revealed. “Janicza and I worked on Lemon so this will be our second time collaborating together on Zola.”
McMillon’s success has been hard won, but if there is anything she can suggest to anyone pursuing their dreams, it’s to stay ready. “I would say the most valuable lesson that I learned throughout this whole process of trying to achieve my goal of becoming an editor for feature films is to be prepared for the opportunity,” she explained. “I know a lot of people want the opportunity to happen for them, and they want to where they need to be to execute the opportunity, but for me, behind the scenes, I was constantly working. I might have been assistant editing on a feature, but I was editing shorts. I was editing commercials. I actually collaborated with Barry on a few commercials and a short film. I knew being a feature film editor is where I wanted to end up, so I constantly was editing things, and cutting my teeth on a lot of different projects. When the opportunity to edit a feature arrived, I was prepared for that opportunity.”
If Beale Street Could Talk will begin a limited release on December 14, 2018, before expanding everywhere on December 25.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide