Movie News & Reviews

‘Moonlight’ casts a glow on Liberty City that will shine long after Oscars

The drug-dealing Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes a fatherly interest in the young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in the made-in-Miami drama ‘Moonlight.’
The drug-dealing Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes a fatherly interest in the young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in the made-in-Miami drama ‘Moonlight.’ A24 FILMS

Sunday night, “Moonlight” is poised to make Oscar history by becoming the first made-in-Miami movie to win Best Picture. Barry Jenkins could become the first African-American filmmaker to win Best Director. Joi McMillon could become the first black woman to win Best Editor.

But even if “Moonlight” ends up getting shut out at the 89th Academy Awards, the movie has already established a legacy that will endure in South Florida long after the Oscar winners become answers to trivia questions.

A timeless story of human connection and self-discovery, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

“This movie is a beacon of hope and light,” said Natalie Baldie, artistic director of the Performing and Visual Arts Center (PAVAC) Magnet Program — the first and oldest performing arts magnet in the state of Florida — at Miami Northwestern High School in Liberty City.

“All the recognition and accolades the movie is getting shows our students that the arts is another avenue out of Liberty City that’s just as important as athletics or rap music,” she said. “It also shows them that their stories matter. Their lives matter.”

Three of Baldie’s students landed roles as extras in “Moonlight,” which tells the story of Chiron, a young gay man growing up bullied and afraid in Liberty City, raised by a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and sheltered by a Cuban drug dealer (Mahershala Ali), who becomes a father figure to the kid.

Played by three different actors — as a boy by Alex Hibbert, as a teenager by Ashton Sanders and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes — Chiron is comprised of different facets from the lives of Jenkins and actor/playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. The movie began life as an autobiographical work, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which McCraney wrote in the summer of 2003, shortly after the death of his mother. Although conceived as a play, the piece was never produced.

Years later, McCraney and Jenkins — who had lived within blocks of each other in the Liberty Square housing projects in the 1980s and ’90s but had never met — were introduced by Andrew Hevia and Lucas Leyva, co-founders of the Miami artists collective Borscht Corp., who encouraged them in 2011 to collaborate.

When McCraney won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship Grant in 2013, he gave Jenkins his blessing to write and direct a movie based on his original material.

SHOOTING IN MIAMI

Jenkins, who attended Northwestern High and studied filmmaking at FSU, insisted on filming “Moonlight” on location in Miami, despite the lack of state tax incentives that would have helped to stretch the movie’s $5 million budget.

“We wanted this to be a Miami film,” Jenkins told the Miami Herald during the casting process in 2015. “We couldn’t shoot it anywhere else. We wanted Miami voices and faces. This is the city that created me. Instead of being a reflection of Miami, we wanted it to be Miami.”

Just as important as the people was the city’s iconography: The faded pastel colors of the Liberty Square housing units and the beautiful greenery and open skies around them form an ironic backdrop for the emotionally dark, painful story “Moonlight” tells.

Dr. Moses Shumow, an assistant professor at FIU’s School of Communication and Journalism, directed a documentary in 2015, “Liberty Square Rising,” that chronicled the rich history of the community, the oldest and largest public housing complex in the United States, built in 1937. Last summer, Miami-Dade County approved a $307 million redevelopment project that will create more than 1,500 new housing units in the 52-acre region.

“It’s going to be a completely different community,” Shumow said. “The magic and the sadness and everything that place holds will be gone in a few years. Liberty Square is so colorful, you can’t help but be inspired by the beauty of it. But then you juxtapose that with the severe endemic poverty and everything that comes with it. ‘Moonlight’ helps to cement that history, which is important.

“A lot of people’s impressions of Liberty City is that it’s a scary place full of drug dealers and gangs and murders,” he said. “‘Moonlight’ helps shift that narrative a little bit. That’s not to say it’s an uplifting film about a wonderful community these kids live in. It’s pretty truthful in its portrayal of how hard life is there. But there’s a humanity there that doesn’t come across when you watch the nightly news. It could make some kids from the community think that filmmaking could possibly be for them.”

Shumow says that this summer, he will reprise the Eyes on Your Mission Academy project that debuted last year, which brings together students from Northwestern High and FIU to create marketing and digital videos for local nonprofit organizations.

INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM

“Moonlight” was released theatrically in October 2016 after earning great critical praise on the film festival circuit. The reviews were rapturous. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott wrote that the movie “is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.”

The film has grossed $21 million at the box office (including a record-setting 13-week run at O Cinema Wynwood) and has been showered with awards by critics’ groups, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America.

For tonight’s Oscar broadcast, the Borscht Film Festival is hosting a free screening of “Moonlight” at 5 p.m., followed by an Oscar-watching block party at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where McCraney once studied and now regularly teaches.

Established in 1975, the center has served as a gallery, studio and educational center, offering courses in all artistic disciplines through after school and summer programs. Now, because of the success of “Moonlight,” the center is also expanding into the filmmaking arena. A new cinematic arts department will be established through a $20,000 donation in Jenkins’ name for his participation as a judge in an Elton John Music Video Competition. McCraney is donating a $10,000 cash prize that he will receive in April in conjunction with his 2017 African-American Achievers Award in the Arts & Culture category.

Marshall Davis, who has served as managing director of the Arts Center for 33 years, says the money will go toward the creation of a cinematic department to go along with its existing programs of dance, theater, music and visual arts.

“When you have something specific you can point to, that’s very encouraging to the students,” Davis said. “We try to make kids feel comfortable and competent in whatever they are studying. For a lot of the younger kids who start with us at the age of 5, it’s about making them feel like they are part of this place. Something like ‘Moonlight’ gives our students a clear objective: I know what my goal is, I know what I’m interested in, I know what I’m striving toward, and that movie shows me that it can be done.”

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE

McCraney, who will share the podium with Jenkins if “Moonlight” wins the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, will return to the center this summer to teach an eight-week intensive course in writing, acting, dance and visual arts skills.

“Becoming an artist in Miami is daunting, period,” he said via email. “There are hurdles all over and more acutely in economically challenged areas like Liberty City. But there are also artists all over Liberty City. My hope is that we learn to support them and their voices now before they become artists of some other city.”

And regardless of how “Moonlight” fares with Academy voters, Jenkins says nothing can detract from the experience of having made a movie about the Miami he grew up in, near the same locations where he once lived.

“I’ve been walking around in my dream,” he said of the past few months. “It’s a shocking thing to realize this is a dream that became a reality through a lot of hard work and the generosity of all the people I collaborated with. It’s crazy. I know how hard it was to make this film, and how small it is, and how much personal passion went into it. I’m proud of hell of it, and nothing that happens from here on out can change that.”

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald

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