How Oscar Favorite ‘Moonlight’ Subtly Illuminates the Erasure of Miami’s Black Cubans

Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Barry Jenkins’ beautifully understated film Moonlight has been hailed almost unanimously by film critics as one of the best movies of 2016. Nominated for six Golden Globe awards, including best film and best director, Moonlight delves into the intersections of race, class, and sexuality in a very localized manner, shot almost entirely in Liberty City, a poor, black neighborhood of Miami that has rarely been captured on the big screen. It’s a world away from the more commercialized and stereotypical portraits of Miami, which tend to focus on its Cuban or “Latin” flavor, or its beaches. The quiet drama touches on a myriad of issues in a richly interwoven way: the crack epidemic that ran rampant in the 1980s and 90s that essentially converts Chiron, the protagonist, into an orphan as it consumes his mother; the bullying he faces because his behavior doesn’t conform to normative performances of masculinity; and his struggle to come to terms with his queerness. With the character of Juan, a drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing after witnessing his mother’s neglect, Jenkins also makes a statement about Cuban racial politics in Miami.

In the first act of the movie, there is a scene in which Juan – played exquisitely by Mahershala Ali, who looks poised to win a Golden Globe on Sunday for this performance – takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him how to swim. Juan tells Chiron about his background, revealing that he is Cuban and stating, “Lotta black folks in Cuba but you wouldn’t know it from being here [in Miami].” Juan is referring to the fact that black Cubans tend to be invisible in Miami, and in the United States in general, their voices and experiences drowned out by the very vocal and largely white, anti-communist exile community. While Juan’s identity as a black Cuban is tangential to the main story, this one-line statement adds a whole other layer of complexity to the film’s representation of Miami: it not only raises the issue of racial difference within the Miami Cuban community, but also recognizes the diverse black identities inhabiting Miami, including African Americans, Cubans, and Haitians. Moreover, it echoes the inaccurate assumption by many Americans that because the Miami Cuban community is largely white/light-skinned, Cuba itself is a majority white nation.

Census counts have a fairly problematic history in Cuba, and are not always considered reliable, making it difficult to present accurate statistics on the island’s racial make-up. Nonetheless, scholars (here, for example) estimate that anywhere between 30 and 60 percent of Cubans are of African descent. The nation has become “blacker” since the 1959 Revolution, precisely because of the large waves of wealthy white Cubans who defected after Fidel Castro came to power. Their primary destination? Miami. Since the 1960s, the Miami-based Cuban population has been disproportionately white, a fact that has resulted in fraught social relations not only with other non-whites in Miami (principally African Americans), but also with other Latinx in the United States. Cuban-Americans are much more likely than other Latinx to identify themselves as white – recent statistics suggest over 80 percent, as compared to other Latinx groups, which tend to range from 40-60 percent – and are often viewed by non-Cuban Latinx as constantly touting their own exceptionalism. Cubans deserve much credit for making Miami into a cosmopolitan city, and for their relatively large amount of political influence, but we must not forget that they have long received benefits that no other immigrant group enjoys, such as automatic permanent residency status if they set foot on U.S. soil, and a range of economic entitlements.

Returning to Juan’s comment about the invisibility of black Cubans in Miami, there is evidence that the Cuban-American population in Miami is disproportionately whiter than Cuban-American populations in other metropolitan areas of the U.S, as cited by Alan A. Aja in his book Miami’s Forgotten Cubans. In other words, black and even mixed-race Cubans tend to settle in other U.S. cities, perhaps in part because they anticipate facing racism from their white compatriots in Miami. Nonetheless, the racial composition of Cuban migration to the United States has been shifting since the 1980s, beginning with the infamous Mariel crisis in 1980. The 125,000 Marielitos who arrived were a much more diverse – generally poorer and darker – group than previous waves in the 1960s and 70s. On the island, Fidel boasted of “cleaning out” the jails and sending the indeseables (undesirables), which included LGBT people and religious practitioners whose identities/beliefs were criminalized, to the United States. The trend of more diverse compositions of immigrants continued with the balseros of the early-to-mid 1990s, fleeing the economic crisis in Cuba provoked by the fall of the Soviet Union. Given the approximate age of Moonlight’s protagonist in the third act, presumably set in the present day, it’s safe to assume Juan might have come to Miami with the Marielitos.

In early December, a video of Mahershala Ali breaking down after seeing the finished film for the first time went viral. He spoke emotionally and poignantly about Juan and why the character feels drawn to the young Chiron, stating that as a dark-skinned Cuban living among a majority-white Cuban population, Juan knows what it is to be an outsider, to occupy a marginalized identity. Ali also mentioned the affinity that Juan has not with his own compatriots, but with Miami’s African American population. In fact, the audience is not even aware that Juan is Cuban until he tells Chiron in the beach scene; the first scene of the movie shows him consorting with a fellow drug dealer, who is speaking very localized black slang, and the assumption is that both are African American. Juan’s identity and trajectory challenge widely held Cuban notions that a shared patria trumps all other axes of identification; one’s status as Cuban is supposed to supersede any other identification, whether race, gender, sexual orientation, or even political affiliation.

All in all, Barry Jenkins’ choice to make Juan a black Cuban, instead of a black American (which would have made just as much narrative sense), and having his character comment on Cuban racial politics provides a beautifully rich teachable moment on the reality of race for Cubanos in Miami and on the island.