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It was the last Saturday in July 2016 when I first saw Moonlight. Barry Jenkins had flown into town specifically for a private showing at O Cinema Wynwood for the kids in the film and their families. Barry wanted to make sure they could see and process the film well in advance, and he wanted to be there to talk them through it. He said it was okay that I sit in to watch.
As I took my seat, anxious and excited. I knew this moment was special. More than a month before its world premiere and the avalanche of well-deserved praise that would follow, I’d be among the first to see the hometown story come to life on-screen.
You see, Moonlight had been orbiting my universe for some time.
For as long as I can remember, Miami’s portrayal on film and television was centered almost exclusively on South Beach. While there’s no doubt that the neon-lit streets and the pastel colored art deco buildings are a unique part of our city and make for a good backdrop, they are not representative of the Miami most of us know.
South Beach is flashy, decadent and polished. Miami, however, is rough around the edges, eclectic, and mostly poor. A walk down Ocean Drive reveals white bodies reveling to the beats of house music and sipping overpriced drinks, while the streets of the Miami most of us know are brown and black and bustling with a cacophony of languages and accents serving as the soundtrack for people with places to go. As iconic as Miami Vice, The Birdcage and The Golden Girls might be (and love them as I do), they are stereotypes that most in this city could never relate to.
In Moonlight, I saw a film firmly rooted in a Miami that is real and familiar: working class and tough, with people fighting to survive and to find themselves. While its journey was about a very particular experience, that of growing up poor, gay, and black, there was something about this film that spoke directly to me, whether it was the feeling of the otherness of being an awkward queer kid in a very straight world or the fact that going to school in Liberty City I knew many real-life Chirons. From that first viewing, Moonlight always felt authentic and perhaps more so than its superb acting, stellar story and gorgeous cinematography, that has been its greatest achievement.
Ensuring that our authentic and unique stories are told should be a mandate for us all. If we are truly thrilled for Moonlight’s win, to honor its creative journey we must continue to build the road it’s begun to pave. We must not let Moonlight be the anomaly; we must make it the standard-bearer.
As the city reels from its moment in the sun, many of us are asking ourselves what is our next great story to be told? Where will we find the next Barry Jenkins or Tarell Mccraney?
Talent cannot be manufactured, but it can be nourished and cultivated. We cannot mimic the magic of Moonlight, but we can create environments from which our next great works of art and artists will emerge. We can demand more arts education in our public schools, insist that our elected leaders increase their funding to the arts and find a dedicated revenue source for it going forward. We can support organizations cultivating work created for and by locals – places like Miami Light Project, Borscht Film Festival, Nu Deco Ensemble, and FilmGate.
We can demand that our local institutions celebrate that which is created here. We can call our governor and state representatives and tell them that it is time to reinstate tax incentives for the film industry so that our creative class can remain intact and grow, not have to seek their livelihood elsewhere.
We can turn out to support locals, ensuring that the performances, exhibitions, and screenings are well attended, allowing the organizations the support to continue presenting them and the artists the encouragement to keep making their work here.
We must insist that our cultural community represents every inch of the rich and diverse cultural fabric that is Miami: black, brown, queer, female, gender nonconforming, immigrant, and natives alike. We must work to make certain that our cultural corridors are not just in the urban core but in neighborhoods all across the city and all across the socioeconomic stratum. We must recognize our privilege and our biases and use art not merely as a form of entertainment but as a tool of education, enlightenment, and empowerment for all.
Since its premiere last October, there has hardly been a day that I haven’t talked about Moonlight, from friends who’ve seen it and can’t wait to share their thoughts to patrons of O Cinema who’ve made multiple visits during the films record-breaking 13 weeks run at our theater.
For those who’ve seen the movie, it’s no surprise that it resonates as it does – good art has a way of doing that. Even when others don’t bring it up I find myself thinking about Moonlight more and more, and despite not having anything to do with it officially, Moonlight’s success feels like a personal win.
Perhaps it’s because Barry Jenkins and I went to high school together at Miami Northwestern (though we didn’t get to know each other until many years later) or the fact that the films co-producer Andrew Hevia (the reason the film ever happened in the first place) is a very close friend who’s been sharing the journey with me all along the way. Or maybe it was the fact that the film was so embraced by O Cinema audiences, distinguishing itself as our biggest hit ever.
I suspect it has little to do with any of the above and everything to do with Miami, my hometown- a place that I love, even though doing so is not always easy. A city whose potential I thoroughly believe in, despite what seems like a multitude of reasons not to. Moonlight’s story reminds me that Miami may not be perfect, but it is ours, all of us. It reminds me that despite all the challenges and roadblocks, things of beauty can emanate from the most unlikely of circumstances.
Last night, Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin Mccraney, two men from Liberty City, may have taken home those Golden Statuettes, but all of us who call this city home have carved out a place in the mantles of our hearts for this movie and for this moment. In some ways, Moonlight didn’t win last night. Miami did.
If you haven’t seen Moonlight yet, you’ve got another chance. The Academy Award winner returns to the big screen this week at O Cinema Wynwood. Tickets and showtimes here.