Moonlight win ignites hope in historic Miami ghetto

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins (far left) and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney in the Liberty Square housing project in Miami where they grew up.
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins (left) and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney in the Liberty Square housing project in Miami where they grew up.PHOTO: NYTIMES

MIAMI • Too often, the stories portrayed in the news around the crumbling pastel apartment units in Miami's Liberty City tell of violence and bloodshed, of young lives cut short by drugs or guns.

But the movie Moonlight, which won on Sunday three Oscars including the top Best Picture prize, has inspired hope that new narratives can emerge from this impoverished area, which was once a source of pride for those who live here.

"A lot of people think that our community is a bad community and it is not," said Ms Natalie Joy Baldie, artistic director of the Performing and Visual Arts Centre at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, the alma mater of director Barry Jenkins and where three students were recruited for minor roles in the film.

"We are tough, we are smart, we are talented, we are gifted and we do what we need to do," she said the day after the Oscars. "We just need our children to see the positive aspect of Liberty City. And great things do come out of Liberty City, as you saw last night."

Not only was the film the first movie made in Miami to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, it also earned Mahershala Ali accolades for Best Supporting Actor - the first Oscar for a Muslim actor. Moonlight also won for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The movie is based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney - titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue - which he has described as a semiautobiographical account of events from his own life, growing up gay in Liberty City.

Jenkins also grew up in the same public housing project, which was built in 1937 and is the oldest in the United States.

"It was the first segregated public housing anywhere in the United States," said Dr Moses Shumow, assistant professor in the department of communications at Florida International University.

He has made a documentary about the area, showcasing the happy memories of long-time residents who moved in hoping for a better life.

His documentary also shows the struggles Liberty City has endured, ranging from segregation and the inability of residents to secure home loans, to racially tinged riots in the 1980s and the crack cocaine epidemic.

"Here is a community that didn't undergo a moment of trauma, but rather 70 years of trauma," he said.

Historians say some of the troubles of Miami's black community stem from the construction of major highways decades ago that cut through what were cohesive neighbourhoods and drove poverty in those areas.

Due to the surging violence around Liberty City, with seven deaths and 43 shootings in 2015 alone, Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez decided to redevelop the heart of the project, known as Liberty Square.

Many changes lie ahead for the area. But looking back, Moonlight - which featured an all-black cast - earned praise for penetrating the inner lives of its characters as they fought against stereotypes, addiction, heartbreak and poverty.

"I don't think it puts a gloss on the reality, but it moves beyond that, raising questions of sexuality and questions of poverty and how do you escape and what does it mean for you?" Dr Shumow said.

"To me, it is just so positive that a different kind of story could emerge. And that it is getting global recognition."

Hollywood has been accused of overlooking black actors and films in past award seasons, making the timing of Moonlight and its trio of Academy Awards even more important for the African-American community.

It shows characters with depth and flaws, such as the Cuban drug dealer played by Ali, who acts as a sensitive father figure to a bullied boy but looks ashamed when the child confronts him about selling drugs to his mother.

"There is a tenderness and a vulnerability in the characters that we have not seen certainly coming from Hollywood and major film studios," said Mr Anthony Browne, chair of the department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College in New York.

"It represents a great leap forward, in terms of how African Americans are depicted," he said. "That kind of complexity shown on film is pretty remarkable." He said he believes the film will be studied for years to come and hopes that it will inspire more authentic tales.

"If African Americans, like other groups, are given the opportunity to make and tell their stories, it will enrich the genre," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2017, with the headline 'Moonlight win ignites hope in historic Miami ghetto'. Print Edition | Subscribe