What the powerful Best Picture winner gets right about Miami as a city and a place to live.
Moonlight’s opening scene shows Juan driving through the streets of Liberty City, checking out one of his corner spots to see how business is going. A pack of children chasing the protagonist of the film, Chiron, screams by. Chiron finds himself locked inside of an abandoned building, afraid to go outside to confront the pack. In running away from childhood insecurities and bullies, he finds himself in adult dangers, locked in a hellish place that Juan soon pulls him out of.
The use of the city in these opening scenes shows how Moonlight planned to use Miami: not as a sexy beach metropolis, or the background for flashy scenes from Miami Vice, but a city with real people who call it home. The movie primarily takes place in small multi-family apartments in Liberty City, a primarily black neighborhood in North Miami. The movie explores streets, housing, diners, parks, and the waters of Miami, navigating through multiple neighborhoods throughout the city. Living in Miami is like living in 100 cities; No experience is the same, no group of settings, no homes are the same; It is a city of many different backgrounds and lives. Moonlight sought to show one of those experiences, but in doing so, showed the potential of 100.
Water is something that people of Miami have a special relationship with. While the movie does not show panning images of South Beach, water acts as a peripheral player. Whether it be the sounds of waves crashing behind Chiron sitting on the beach with Kevin, or engulfing the screen as Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, the use of it is specific and measured.
The housing shown in the film is mostly multi-family, exterior corridor buildings. These make up a large stock of the rental units in Miami and are a staple of certain neighborhoods such as North Beach, Little Havana, and Liberty City. Miami has a higher proportion of renters to owners than many other major cities in the US, so it is fitting that these units represent many people’s experiences. In Act II, we see Chiron and his mother has moved to a social housing project from their previous apartment. This subtle change, though not mentioned is reflective of his mother’s problems with drugs, and need of assistance. While we see Chiron and Kevin living in rental units, Juan and his girlfriend live in a single-family home away from Liberty City, representing a different level of means. Finally, at the end of the film, Kevin lives in a rental unit, but away from Liberty City, signaling his transformation away from the problems of his youth, and his maturing. The use of housing types to imply means and position in society is a subtlety of Moonlight, that stems from a deep understanding of Miami as a city.
Finally, the use of the two diners in the film shows a type of eatery in Miami often overlooked. Fast casual, usually Latin, diners have been a staple in Miami for generations. They are open all hours of the day and are the places of business, family, and friendship. Whether it be for the mundane or a special occasion, these diners act almost like public gathering places in a city sometimes too hot to be outside. In the film, they are used twice: Once when Juan takes Chiron to get something to eat in Act I, and a second time that takes up the majority of Act III. These simple moments are what make this movie so special for Miami. It uses the places that we take for granted to tell a simple story that cannot be forgotten: One of a young black boy, exploring masculinity, sexuality, and purpose in his hometown of Miami.
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