Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) Talks Ray McKinnon’s Rectify

A piece of storytelling in the great Southern tradition, actor-writer McKinnon's show brilliantly captures the rhythms of life.

Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
— Flannery O’Connor

There is something unspeakably great about the SundanceTV series Rectify. I say “unspeakably” because like most great things, it is something I feel yet will struggle to articulate. In telling the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and the small, tumultuous community he finds himself returning to after 19 years on death row, Ray McKinnon and his band of committed cohorts — both in front of and behind the camera — have managed an amazing feat: capturing the earthbound rhythms of the show’s Southern roots while simultaneously conjuring a spiritual aura of redemptive light. In homage to Flannery O’Connor, and in the words of Kendrick Lamar, this show is “really, really real.

There’s a conversation playing out in the industry about the worlds of television and feature filmmaking; what’s possible in one but not the other, issues of tone, scale and authorship. In some ways this is a set-piece we’ve seen before, the introduction of television altering our appraisal of feature films and, according to form, the injection of cat videos and web-series doing the same for television. Many filmmakers are turning to television to tell their stories and the situation reminds me of a debate I often have with myself about the limitations of various forms. It goes as follows: the novel is superior to film in its ability to capture interiority and the plausible passage of time. Taking it one step further, the short story is a more apt analogue for a feature film. Distilled: a feature film is best used to dramatize a moment, while a television series most befits the indifferent rhythms of a full life.

With an ear attuned to the meaty minutiae of the everyday, McKinnon has situated Rectify beautifully in between. Over the show’s 16 episodes — roughly 12 dramatic hours of knotty emotions and painfully uttered words — little more than a few weeks in the lives of the characters have passed. The show has taken a moment and treated it like a RAW image, blown up and examined at a level of detail uncommon in modern drama. In doing so, it implicitly states its case for the aural (and visual) weight of Daniel’s growled utterances, for a cliffhanger amounting to little more than glances exchanged. It gelds the audience’s desire for escapism and replaces it with the mandate that art imitate life. And imitate life it does, with a fidelity to the way life pulses along on the currency of small gestures… and derails at the simplest turn of phrase.

That such earnest storytelling is accomplished in what most closely resembles a relay race is heartening (think of McKinnon and his writers as the coaches of a track team, and the directors as runners exchanging cast and crew as they sprint through the season). I have not noted the total number of directors throughout the show’s run, but the diversity and consistency of the group McKinnon has enlisted is wonderful, and certain names have stuck with me. David Lowery, Sanaa Hamri and Jim McKay all put in great work. Seith Mann, directing episode nine of the just completed second season, inspired me with his ability to ingest McKinnon’s vision and spin an episode that embraces the many themes this show juggles — temptation, salvation, faith and love — and sublimate them with a clear-eyed, sublunary aesthetic reminiscent of Claire Denis or Carlos Reygadas. Through it all, I imagine McKinnon hovering above the show’s making, constantly extending his heart to those carrying his words, trustingand inspiring them to treat his delicate creation with the same touch and grace with which he conceived it.

Your grandsons will be eating corn bread that’s sweet and iced tea that ain’t, they will think that’s the good ole southern tradition.”
— Ray McKinnon’s The Accountant

McKinnon has been rightfully aligned with the Southern literary tradition, most often in a flattering comparison with the incomparable William Faulkner. For me, however, the work that McKinnon — and specifically this show — most recalls is that of Flannery O’Connor. Whether it be Daniel’s apostle-like existence or, in macro story form, his tortured journey through purgatory, Rectify’s overt religious allusions and constant engagement with death dovetail nicely with O’Connor’s work (specifically the novel The Violent Bear It Away and “Greenleaf,”a short story from the collection Everything That Rises Must Converge). In a world where everyone seems so obsessed with escaping, with getting outside themselves and beyond reality, these two authors — these two Southern authors — have done just the opposite, burrowing inside, deep down inside where the marrow shows and the pain takes root.

I’ve yet to say what actually happens in this show. Forgive me for that, but to me the “what” is less important than the “how,” than the way in which this show conveys its happenings. There is, however, one sequence I must mention. While Daniel lies in a comatose state at the opening of Season Two, the inner-workings of his dormant mind are brought to life in the form of an in-between space, of this world yet outside and beyond it. As Daniel walks a remote landscape with a fellow death row inmate — one black, one white, one perished and the other fighting for his life — the two men share a conversation full of hope and life that swells the heart and subdues the mind. In a vacuum, the sequence is a display of humanism that perfectly captures what’s so special about Rectify, of the simple wonder that viewers undeterred by its pacing and modesty have found so rewarding.

I met Ray McKinnon once a very long time ago. His short, The Accountant, had just won an Oscar and with the graciousness that I will always associate with him, McKinnon made time to visit my film school (Florida State) to screen and discuss the piece. That was over a decade ago, but what I remember of that encounter I also see exemplified in this show, in its creator’s sincerity, humility, earnestness and honesty. As a filmmaker, the entire enterprise — both the show and its creator — leaves me humbled. And proud. As an American filmmaker, incredibly proud that between the creators of this show and the network that has renewed it for a third season, there’s still room for sincere, forthright storytelling about everyday life and the complexity of the human soul.

I’m not a religious person, but I will say “Amen” to that.

Barry Jenkins was born and raised in Miami, Florida. He studied film at Florida State University. His feature film Medicine For Melancholy was acquired and released by IFC Films and nominated for four Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards.