'Moonlight' win ignites hope in historic Miami ghetto
06:12 AM 2017-02-28 661
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 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 Natalie Joy Baldie, artistic director of the Performing and Visual Arts Center 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 told AFP.
"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 ever for a Muslim actor. "Moonlight" also won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
The movie is based on a play by Tarell McCraney -- titled "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" -- which he has described as a semi-autobiographical account of events from his own life, growing up gay in Liberty City.
- '70 years of trauma' -
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 Moses Shumow, assistant professor in the department of communications at Florida International University.
Shumow has made a documentary about the area, showcasing the happy memories of longtime 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 told AFP.
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 neighborhoods 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?" Shumow said.
"To me, it is just so positive that a different kind of story could
emerge. And that it is getting global recognition."
- Vulnerable characters -
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, like 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
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," Browne said.
"That kind of complexity shown on film is pretty remarkable."
Browne 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," said Browne.