On Miami and the 'Moonlight' effect

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August 10th 2017

With glowing reviews and healthy box office numbers from films like Get Out, Detroit, and Girls Trip, 2017 is looking to be a very promising year for black film — and we haven’t even gotten to the fall yet!  This is momentous as this year comes on the heels of 2016, which was undoubtedly an historic year for African-American cinema). The best film on my personal top-ten list of 2016 was a black film. It was called O.J: Made In America. O.J. was an 8-hour sprawling epic documentary on the life and times of O.J Simpson. Black filmmaker or not, Made In America is a film so omniscient and omnipresent, you might think God directed it, and not its director, Ezra Edelman. Another at the top of my list was Moonlight, an epic poem of a film from black filmmaker Barry Jenkins (O.J. and Moonlight took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Documentary Feature respectively).  I was working in London at the time Moonlight debuted in theaters, so I had to wait a few months to see them. I remember all the noise surrounding the film that made my wait all the more frustrating. Critics from Telluride, to Toronto to New York were all responding to it in luminous ways. And audiences of all shades were being impacted in positively universal ways. Moonlight was being embraced, not solely “black” or “queer” film, but as a cinematic masterpiece. While all flattering, in my mind, most of the acclaim was eclipsed by something even more awesome: this was a little independent film from Miami taking the world of cinema by storm.

I am not a stranger to Miami, Florida. Growing up in The Bahamas, my siblings and I frequented there every summer for vacation. I also attended two film schools in Miami in from 1997 - 2001. This was during that ambiguous time for filmmaking in the city. It was when Florida saw its native filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project make headlines in the cinema. It was at the same time that reality TV shows like Miami Ink were just beginning to pop up in the city and put Miami on the production map. Regardless of any apparent progress for our local film community, it was still an unwritten rule at the time that said: one eventually moves to Los Angeles or New York if anyone was to take filmmaking seriously. This was exactly what I did. I seized every opportunity to move to La La Land, only to find that Los Angeles didn’t necessarily embrace the stories and ideas from the tropical world that I came from. Some professionals in L.A. even suggested that I transplant some of those stories from the tropics to Los Angeles. When I first saw Moonlight, I was aware that Barry Jenkins and his writing partner Tarell Alvin McCraney were from Miami (Mr. McCraney as it turns out, also has Bahamian roots). But I was also willing to bet that much of its cast were Miamians as well.  Why? The accents and looks to were so specific to Black Miami. And while the film was wholeheartedly universal, it felt very unique to a time, place, and world I knew well. As it turns out, Mr. Jenkins did insist on a having much of a local Miami cast crew as possible while making the film.  While this narrative could have easily taken place in many cities around the world, Moonlight just belonged in Miami. Miami was as much a character in the film as the characters themselves.

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Rene Rodriguez, retired Miami Herald film critic (whose reviews fed some of my film school knowledge) wrote of Moonlight that it was “Miami’s first bonafide masterpiece.” In addition to great local reviews, the film also performed solidly at the local box office. And as Moonlight climbed every top ten list around the world, and raked in all of its due accolades, the city of Miami film’s community began to bask in its glow, as well. The city’s leading film festival, the Miami Film Festival then introduced its Moonlight-inspired ‘$10,000 Knight Made in MIA Award.’ The award will reward a filmmaker for South Florida content and opened to applicants on June 1, 2017.  Executive Director of the Miami Film Festival Jaie Laplante, called the international success of “Moonlight” unexpected, but said he and his team welcomed the new attention to Miami’s creatives. “We at the Miami Film Festival asked ourselves ‘How can we extend this magic, this watershed moment that ‘Moonlight’ and its subsequent awards inspired?'” He added: “We can’t give an Academy Award, but we thought we could create this new permanent award to reward local stories.” Victoria Rogers, the vice president of arts at the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, which is a major partner of the Miami Film Festival, said “Moonlight” is emblematic of the kind of art the foundation seeks to fund.  Since 2012, the Knight Foundation has poured about $6 million into the American independent film industry, including the Borst Film Festival in Miami where Moonlight had much of its development origins.

This increased interest in local filmmaking is what some in Miami are calling the “moonlight effect.” Miami Florida, before Moonlight, has been notably stingy with filmmakers in its incentives and offerings. And now?  The city just introduced a new production incentive with the aim of returning to its past as a major shooting destination, attracting professionals from around the globe. Florida’s production community hopes that the county’s initiative will spark a trend among other jurisdictions, putting the state back on the film-production map. The new incentive is a grant-rebate that provides $100,000 to qualified production. All projects that want to take advantage of it must spend a minimum of $1 million in Miami-Dade, and at least 70 percent of the production must take place in the county. In addition, like Moonlight, the production needs to hire at least 50 county residents for its main cast and crew, and at least 80 percent of vendors to the project must be Miami-Dade County-registered businesses. “If it was not for Moonlight, we would not have had the attention of the city and the country in the same way” says Dillana Alexander. Ms. Alexander heads an organization called Film Gate Miami. One of Film Gate’s mandates (especially in the wake of Moonlight) is to encourage as much local growth and initiatives as possible. This is done through hosting panels and monthly screenings of local-produced film. One of the Film Gate’s written mantras is, it literally states that it's, “Not Gonna Move To LA.”

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And I have to admit, returning to Miami for a short trip all these years later, had the Miami Film Festival awards program, the new Tax Incentive, and Film Gate Miami existed at the time I was contemplating the move to LA, I would have reconsidered. And this is probably the essence of the “moonlight effect”. We too often forget in the hustle and bustle of the business of film that independent film really has the power to impact culture, build it, and even change it. Like Moonlight attempted to transcend our understanding of an often marginalized and misunderstood group of individuals, cinema at its best is supposed to transcend “the movies”. Its glow supersedes the darkened room of a movie theater. When most powerful, the cinema doesn’t just mirror reality, it becomes it.

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Today, if you go Liberty City in Miami, you will see a street called “Moonlight Way”. This was the Miami-Dade Commissioner’s way of immortalizing the movie's significance. "This movie — at least what I got from it — really depicts the life of how a lot of us were raised and what we had to go through and endure as children in the inner city," said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who is sponsored the item. "Moonlight Way” is on NW 22nd Avenue from NW 61st Street to NW 66th Street — only a short distance from Liberty Square, where Barry Jenkins grew up and where parts of Moonlight were filmed. It runs past Liberty City’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, Tarell McCraney’s artistic home (a location that makes a cameo in the film).

And the final stop on ‘Moonlight Way’? It’s a very tropical beach.

 

by Travolta Cooper on August 10th 2017
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