Miami-Set ‘Moonlight’ is a Heartwrenching Exploration of Gay Black Masculinity With Echoes of Cuba

Moonlight has been rightly heralded as a powerful and evocative meditation on queer black masculinity. Barry Jenkins’ film, adapted from a piece titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by fellow Miami-born playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, follows the story of young man Chiron in three chapters: as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult. We’d be tempted to deem it a black version of Boyhood were it not completely a masterpiece on its own terms. One aspect of Jenkins’ triptych that shouldn’t go unremarked is the authentic Miami flavor that runs through its cinematic landscape.

The film showcases a part of Miami that doesn’t often make it on screen—Miami Vice this is not. It was shot almost exclusively in the Liberty City housing project where Chiron (played by three different actors) lives with his drug-addicted mother. It’s an urban landscape that speaks not just of struggle but of community. The neighborhood, frequently cited as among the most dangerous in America, is never condescended to with Jenkins’ camera. Instead, there’s the knowing gaze of someone who grew up there. As Jenkins writes in the film’s press notes, “Liberty City is one of Miami’s most depressed areas, but what you see in the film is its explosive colors.” The splashes of pastels and the verdant green of the vegetation in the area keep the film’s palette from being that of the grey misery of inner-city stories.

And, of course, this couldn’t be a contemporary Miami movie if there wasn’t an unmistakable Cuban sensibility. It begins when a young Chiron, nicknamed “Little” and played by Alex Hibbert, takes refuge from some school bullies at an abandoned apartment. There, he’s found by Juan (played by Mahershala Ali). Unfazed by Little’s silence—he refuses to tell Juan where he lives—the tender-hearted Liberty City resident (who moonlights as a drug dealer) takes Little home. Later he takes him under his wing. As he teaches Little about life, we learn that Juan is of Cuban descent – an Afro-Cuban character at the heart of a film concerned with what it means to a black man.

It’s a startling moment for the way it keenly connects Little’s struggle to find himself with a father figure who’s as much of an outsider as he is. It is Juan who teaches Little how to swim, gifting him the peace that comes from floating out at sea. It is through Juan that Little also meets the woman who’ll become his surrogate mother: Juan’s girl, Teresa (Janelle Monáe in her feature debut). While these Latino characters are not played by Latino actors, they speak to an integral part of Miami life: the immigrant experience.

Little’s connection to the ocean—he has his most lasting and formative sexual experience along a beach while staring at the moon—and his ability to connect with a man who earnestly tries to answer what a “faggot” is (and whether Little, as a 10 year old, is one), is what makes Juan such an important element of Moonlight. While imposing and clearly connected to the community’s shadier dealings, Juan models for Little a warm and expansive notion of masculine strength, one with a welcome swagger.

Juan and Teresa’s connection to Cuba is echoed in the film’s latter third when Chiron (who now goes by “Black” and resembles the tough Juan more than the vulnerable teenager we meet in the film’s middle section) returns to Miami. He’s traveled back to meet up with a long-lost childhood friend Kevin, a boy with whom he shared a silent but powerfully intimate moment at the beach. They meet at the restaurant where Kevin works, and when Black is presented with a perfectly cooked Cuban meal it prompts one of the funniest exchanges in the film: “Oh, you Cuban, now?” Black asks, only for Kevin to respond, “Only in the kitchen, papi” with the type of playful smirk that explains why Black might still be besotted with him.

Evocative of a vibrant if embattled Miami community, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight thrills for the way the small details surrounding Chiron’s life in Liberty City feel lived-in. Here a Caetano Veloso ditty (“Dicen que por las noches no más se le iba en puro llorar”), there a poignant line of dialogue (“Who is you?”); here a blue-tinged nighttime homoerotic encounter, there a slow-mo memory of a furious, drug-addled mom, Moonlight is nothing if not a raw portrait that reaches for the universal while remaining anchored in the local. More importantly, it reminds us that you really can’t tell an authentic Miami story without it having some Cuban sazón.

Moonlight screens at the New York Film Festival and opens on October 21, 2016.