Oscar-winning film Moonlight presents a view of Miami that never shows up in a tourism video. Far from the sun and glamour of South Beach or the artists and hipsters of Wynwood, it shows predominantly black communities, truly known by few outside the people who live there.
And it’s recognizably their Miami, made beautiful and suddenly more hopeful than it might have seemed before.
“The best thing about this movie is they actually went into the projects and shot it, and they let kids from around Liberty City be in it,” said Kamal Ani-Bello, a freshman at Miami Northwestern Senior High School who had a role as an extra in the film. “Usually people make ‘hoods on movie sets, but this actually shows the real thing — and that’s why it won best picture.”
Moonlight won the Academy Award on Sunday night for best picture, best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay. It was nominated in five additional categories. It follows the life of a young black man as he grows up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood while coming to terms with his own homosexuality.
Director Barry Jenkins “came from the same grounds I came from, from the same city,” said Larry Anderson, a Miami Northwestern junior who also had a role as an extra. Jenkins graduated from the same high school and had roots in a public housing project nicknamed “Pork & Beans” familiar to many students.
“Knowing that he came from the same — not just Miami, but Liberty City, same Pork & Beans, Miami Northwestern and the same programs that I’ve been part of, it tells me I can achieve in the same way as him,” Anderson said.
Jenkins’ wrote the screenplay for Moonlight with Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play on which the film is based. McCraney grew up in the same neighborhoods as Jenkins and attended the New World School of the Arts.
“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don’t see themselves,” McCraney said during the ceremony.
Natalie Baldie, artistic director of the Performing and Visual Arts Center at Miami Northwestern, said she hopes the movie and its awards give students another perspective about getting out of Liberty City or going to college.
“It’s giving them hope to get through and something to look forward to,” Baldie said, sitting with Ani-Bello, Anderson and senior Amanda Ali, who also was an extra in the film. “We’re used to seeing something about violence or rap music or athletes going to the NFL and things of that nature.”
The film’s theme of self-acceptance is one students and the community overall particularly need to hear, she added.
Ali said she hadn’t been entirely aware of how “grown-up” the movie would be, “but that’s good because it shows the truth.”
The success of Moonlight also resonated Monday at Norland Middle School in Miami Gardens, where part of the film is set. Two young actors featured prominently in the film, Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner, are Norland students, and about a dozen others were extras in the film.
Parents called and emailed Principal Ronald Redmon throughout the day to express pride in a program showing the talent coming from Miami, he said.
“Today everyone beamed with pride. Parents were dropping off their kids with their horns blowing,” Redmon said.
Graham Winick, the city of Miami Beach’s film coordinator and a past president of Film Florida, called the success of Moonlight a cultural high-water mark for Miami and Florida, comparable to hosting an international art fair like Art Basel Miami Beach or preserving the area’s signature Art Deco architecture. He pointed out that the film was made for just a small fraction of the marketing budget for some of the films it was up against.
“That movie was $1.5 million in the can, and it looked amazing,” Winick said. “It didn’t have movie stars, but it still hit a nerve and got a release. People believed in it.”