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With Moonlight, Miami got a movie that let the city ‘speak for itself’

The first voice you hear in the film made-in-Miami film “Moonlight” isn’t an actor’s. It’s a local’s. That was intentional, according to director Barry Jenkins.

“I wanted the voice … the sounds of the city to really be true,” he told The New Tropic when the film made its Miami premiere in October. “I wanted Miami to speak for itself.”

It’s this honesty and beauty that prompted us to name Moonlight the biggest win in the arts in Miami for 2016 – and why us locals have fallen in love with the film. It features the city we know.

Unlike pretty much every other film or television show based here that’s made waves in the past, this one celebrates Miami not for its excess, but for its normalcy.

Based off a play by local Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight traces three phases in the life of Chiron, a young black boy struggling to understand his own sexuality while growing up with a drug-addicted mother in a housing project in Liberty City.

Both Jenkins and McCraney were tired of seeing a Miami they didn’t recognize on the big screen. Moonlight was about showing their truth.

“How often do we go to see a movie that’s supposedly set in Miami but we don’t see any part of the Miami we know or grew up with or grew around, or talked to the people that grew up there in those neighborhoods?,” challenged McCraney. “People can come to the table now and say, ‘That’s my home, that’s where I live, that’s where I’m from’.”

And it’s also about cultivating a sense of pride, he added.

“It was all about having Miami natives be proud to tell their story,” Jenkins explained. “So if the film does well and people pick out the neighborhoods and schools and take pride in it, I think that would be amazing because we all should be proud to be from the 305 or 786.”

For McCraney, Jenkins was the perfect director to for the job because he could contrast the city’s beauty with sometimes difficult daily realities.

“He always made sure we saw, in the worst thing that happened … this beautiful oasis we live in and [how] those two things can operate at the same time. He made sure we feel that rather than just see it,”McCraney said.

So how exactly did this meeting of minds happen? Well, while working in Miami with the film collaborative Borscht Corp., a self-described “nonprofit with the simple mission to redefine cinema in Miami,” Jenkins met local McCraney, and read his play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” and it was just forward momentum from there.

“It is a film that is authentically Miami and one we can call our own,” explained Kareem Tabsch, the owner of O Cinema which has been playing the film since October. “It’s so exciting to see Moonlight play at O Cinema, and see people so emotionally wrapped by the film. … It’s not hyperbole when I say I have a conversation about Moonlight every day.”

Since making its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, then locally on Oct. 15 during Borscht’s Corps. mini-film festival, Moonlight has continued to make waves across the film scene.

All of the New York Times’ film critics named it among the best films of the year. And it nabbed six (!) Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Many say it is poised to win best picture at the Oscars.

Since then, McCraney who is a Yale graduate, has accepted a position as the new chairman of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, one of the best theater schools in the country.

For many in Miami, Jenkins and McCraney’s success has become a source of inspiration, as has the film itself.

“I look at Moonlight and I think of the great film that has been put together, and it’s based off of Miami stories,” said Franklin Sirmins, the director of the Pérez Art Museum.

“Culture and arts inform the way we think as individuals. [They] engender conversations that happen outside of the theater, dance, and music … it enriches our lives, and that makes our lives a little bit better.”