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Best Picture Winner Moonlight Is a Window Into Florida’s Past

7 minute read

Though the awards-presentation mishap that capped Sunday night’s Oscars broadcast may garner much of the attention when it comes to the Academy’s recognition of Moonlight as 2016’s Best Picture, this film also deserves a second look from a historical perspective. After all, Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali wasn’t the only supporting character needed to make the film work: Liberty City, one of Miami’s black and impoverished neighborhoods, is another protagonist in the Moonlight story.

This treatment of Miami has been a long time coming. For decades, audiences have had a fairly myopic and often cartoonish view of life in the city, exemplified by crime-focused stories like 1983’s Scarface, the television show Miami Vice, the Bad Boys film series and the video game series Grand Theft Auto (particularly ‘Vice City’). Other stories, such as TV’s Nip/Tuck, highlighted the city’s glitz and glamor (albeit, often the grittier side of this constructed fantasy world) to the detriment, if not entire erasure, of the multidimensional worlds of those living in the city’s margins.

Moonlight, of course, deals with violence, drugs and poverty in Miami too, but centers the lives of those most directly and negatively entangled in these realities; they are not secondary and mythologized characters or villains, but real people with rich histories. And glimpses of Miami’s rich black history are threaded in the collective experiences and memories of its characters.

Unlike many other major metropolitan areas in the United States, Miami is a relatively “new” city, incorporated as a distinct municipality in just 1896. From the very start, Miami’s white urban planners designed the city in ways that not only kept blacks segregated from whites, but also allowed white investors to exploit and capitalize on black poverty, disenfranchisement and labor.

Miami’s segregated black neighborhoods (including an area known as “North Miami,” and later, what was then known as “Colored Town,” or today’s historic Overtown) also housed the area’s thriving sexual underworld; spaces where the city’s black, immigrant and white, working-class gender and sexual transgressives could make a living. White residents and tourists often went “slumming” there to voyeuristically see how the other half lived and, sometimes, expand the limits of their own sexual appetites; they often engaged in interracial and homosexual sex during their visits.

As Moonlight highlights, Miami’s black communities have historically been tethered to numerous migrations and ethnic experiences, particularly those in the Caribbean and Latin America. (Juan, played by Ali, reminds protagonist Chiron that “a lot of black folks are Cuban.”) In the first two decades of Miami’s urban history, around the turn of the 20th century, migrants and immigrants from the Bahamas proved central to establishing a local agricultural economy and building the nascent city’s infrastructure. Black Bahamian men, whose labor was particularly in high demand, often had little difficulty crossing borders. But once they entered Miami, they too lived in segregated neighborhoods — where they were often depicted as being in direct conflict with U.S.-born blacks and other immigrants, forces that helped justify their surveillance — and local law enforcement heavily policed them for numerous “crimes,” including vagrancy, fornication and sodomy. Black Bahamian women, especially those who were single or unaccompanied, often had even more difficulty: Mythologies of gender and race found Miami’s immigration inspectors anxious that these women were sexually suspect, or prostitutes, and many were denied entry.

This historical pattern of segregating and further pushing black lives to city margins was repeated and amplified throughout Miami’s history.

Although Colored Town was a thriving center for black culture, sometimes referred to as the Harlem of the South, most residents lived in shacks and slums there. As the city grew, the land on which those shacks stood became more appealing for urban planners. New Deal housing programs in the 1930s provided them the opportunity to redistrict this prime location and push its black residents farther northwest. Shortly after the 1937 completion of a black public housing project called Liberty Square, the area that became known as Liberty City quickly grew. This process was sealed when the federal interstate program built I-95 right through the heart of Colored Town, displacing thousands of blacks who fled to Liberty City, particularly in the 1960s, which rapidly became another black ghetto.

This history of segregation is the background to Moonlight’s narrative, the story that explains the world in which the characters’ live, but it is the Liberty City of the 1980s that is most visible to the audience. The era’s hallmarks were by no means unique to Miami — the drug wars, the spread of HIV/AIDS, the shrinking welfare state, heightened policing of people of color — but some circumstances in the Florida city were unique. The area was still recovering from the effects of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, in which roughly 125,000 Cubans entered the United States in a span of just a few months and resettled throughout the city. In addition to those who entered during the boatlift, new waves of Haitian, Nicaraguan and Colombian immigrants also competed for the already limited resources and jobs available to them. As Miami’s Bahamians and U.S.-born blacks had found in the early 1900s, structural barriers created inter- and intra-ethnic and racial tensions in the city – even as they were often exaggerated and fueled by the existing urban power. This bred divisions and ideas of difference among the city’s new and surviving marginalized communities.

Misconceptions of sexuality added significantly to this prism of difference, a tension so palpable in Moonlight. Narratives of black homophobia persisted and often overshadowed the real lives of black and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. For example, weeks before the onset of the Mariel boatlift in 1980, a fundraising blitz supporting the reelection of President Jimmy Carter was staged in Liberty City. Three white gay activists showed up to protest the event, citing Carter’s lackluster position on lesbian and gay rights. One of them, a lesbian woman, held a large placard listing Carter’s ills, which someone tore in two. The local press reported “angry blacks” were responsible. In reality, however, the black audience largely stood in support of her and the other gay activists; someone connected to Carter’s reelection campaign had torn the poster. As before, narratives of difference and division, even those fabricated or overstated, helped stall new alliances and diminished the ability to further bridge the lives of those most vulnerable to violence and discrimination.

These and other pressures, including several cases of police brutality against black residents that went unpunished, led to what some called a “race riot” in Liberty City in May 1980.

The long history traced here, however, reveals Liberty City had long since been a powder keg for such a turmoil following nearly a century of urban violence, displacement and exploitation.

The two men behind Moonlight — filmmaker Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney — both grew up in Liberty City and their rendering of this history is just as nuanced as the documents unearthed in city and county archives. But the importance of that fact doesn’t stop on Oscars night. Their depiction of this world should also serve as a reminder that there exist thousands more stories like those so powerfully portrayed in Moonlight.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Julio Capó, Jr. is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and currently a visiting scholar at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His book on Miami’s queer past, Welcome to Fairyland, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

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