By Andrew Boryga
Halfway through Barry Jenkins’s heartrending film “Moonlight,” the young protagonist, Chiron, is asked by his mother, an addict, for money to fuel her drug habit. The two are standing in their small two-story home, one of many dotting a planned community in Miami’s predominantly black neighborhood of Liberty City, where each property is surrounded by patches of dried grass and laundry lines crisscross yards. Chiron, embarrassed and perplexed, hands over crumpled bills and walks up to his room. Before he is out of view, though, his mother switches from desperate addict to concerned parent: he is late for school, she reminds him. He should get going, and make something of himself. Chiron exits into a steamy morning and walks the barren, sun-starched blocks of his neighborhood to get to school.
The photographer Johanne Rahaman, who has been documenting Miami’s African-American community for the past three years for her ongoing project “Black Florida,” told me that this scene is one of many in “Moonlight” that challenges the one-dimensional portrayals that neighborhoods like Liberty City are often afforded onscreen. Before “Moonlight,” Liberty City, if it was seen by the public at all, tended to be featured in news clips highlighting its high concentration of poverty or on true-crime shows in which cops tracked down murderers, drug dealers, or gang members warring over turf. From 2004 to 2013, the A&E series “The First 48” filmed close to half its episodes in black sections of Miami until the city’s police department severed ties with show’s producersover concerns that the series glorified violence and misrepresented the communities it depicted.
Rahaman, who immigrated to Miami from Trinidad, in 1996, seeks to restore dignity to these neighborhoods by capturing them with the tenderness of an insider. An office administrator in South Beach by day, she spends weekends driving around Miami’s African-American and Caribbean enclaves, in search of scenes of everyday city life. A swarm of smiling boys hangs on the railings of a barricade during a parade in Liberty City celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.; a woman flashes gold fronts while cozying up to a man in Little Haiti; a member of the Nation of Islam sells copies of a newspaper in Overtown whose headline reads “Farrakhan, Ferguson, and Justice or Else!”; a young man escorts his grandmother and great-grandmother out of a Baptist church in Coconut Grove. Many of her subjects, like a d.j. teaching his son the mechanics of a mixer at a child’s birthday party in Miami Gardens, hear about her project through word of mouth and invite her to take their pictures. “People see the work and how I represent the community, and they trust it,” she said. “They know I’m telling a different story of who they are.”
On her Web site and on Instagram, where she shares images from the series, Rahaman includes historical narratives about each neighborhood she visits. Overtown, northwest of downtown, was a prosperous center of black life and entertainment until two highways were built through the center of it, in the nineteen-sixties. Coconut Grove was the first black settlement in Southern Florida, populated mostly by Bahamian immigrants, until, after the Second World War, homes were torn down and replaced with pricey apartment buildings, pushing working-class families farther west. Rahaman sees her series, which is supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, as “an archive of what the black communities in Florida look like after segregation ended.” She has taken thirty-five thousand images so far, and plans to continue her project for twenty years. While there are other archives of black life in Miami, Rahaman said that they, too, often overlook the ordinary experiences that form the heart of the community. “I have to be able to represent what everyday life is like,” she told me. “To do that, I have to follow the path of what people do.”
View more of this article here >>