Moonlight: Visual Look and Location Shooting in Miami’s Liberty Square

Cinematographer James Laxton (CAMP X-RAY, THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER), who attended film school with Jenkins at Florida State University and later shot MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, became enchanted with Miami.


He immediately warmed to its distinctive people, architecture, color schemes, languages, and atmospheric texture, many of which came to influence MOONLIGHT’s distinctive visual style.

“Miami is like a thousand different worlds colliding,” Laxton explains. “The Caribbean and Cuban influences mix with Southern American traditions; wealthy people share space with impoverished people; even the vibrant colors used to paint homes and buildings are unique to the city. In addition, the tropical weather creates an agricultural climate where there is green almost everywhere — it’s almost fluorescent.”

Jenkins knew early on that he wanted to shoot his second feature in Cinemascope, turning to frequent collaborator Laxton to bring to life in the widescreen format the people and places that made MOONLIGHT an emotional powerhouse on the page. “We had a saying between us during filming — this isn’t neorealism,” Jenkins explains. “The story is grounded, but it’s also heightened in many ways. For us the movie is more like a fever dream.”

Through the film’s lush yet lyrical cinematography, Laxton finds arresting visual poetry in the emotive faces of the film’s powerhouse cast and a sumptuous urban backdrop that couldn’t be further removed from SCARFACE or MIAMI VICE.

He creates wide tableaus around the film’s subjects to suggest the opposite of claustrophobia or restriction — instead, actors feel like they are set adrift in the streets and neighborhoods of a city Jenkins lovingly describes as a flat, wide, endless sprawl with unobstructed views of the sky. “We wanted MOONLIGHT to feel immersive,” director Jenkins adds. “Characters often look directly at the viewer, suggesting you are there with them in Miami.”

Shooting in Liberty Square

Jenkins and his crew shot MOONLIGHT in an area of Miami known as Liberty Square, part of the greater Liberty City public housing scheme inhabited by Paula and Chiron during the second chapter of the movie. The neighborhood is frequently cited as among the most dangerous in America, having appeared in numerous episodes of the documentary crime series “The First 48” and in the lyrics of hardcore rap combo the 2 Live Crew, whose members came of age in nearby projects. “We wanted to tell an authentic story so we went into neighborhoods and used locations that felt authentic to our characters’ lives,” Romanski notes. “For some of our crew, it was their first time working in a tough neighborhood, even those crewmembers who had lived in Miami for decades.”

For Jenkins, a Liberty City native who left Miami after college to settle on the West Coast, it was important to bring alive the beauty of the surroundings that shaped him as a youth, much in the same way they shape Chiron’s upbringing in the movie. “Liberty City is one of Miami’s most depressed areas, but what you see in the film is its explosive colors,” Jenkins says. “All the buildings are vibrant in beautiful blue, pink and orange pastels. They haven’t been painted in 40 years, but the color is still there.” MOONLIGHT is at times a heavy movie, one that deals with serious issues, but I wanted to capture the unexpected vibrancy of those projects — and how it feels for that Miami light and color to pass through your retina.”

For Laxton, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Florida to attend college, filming in and around Liberty Square was an inspirational experience, with local residents going out of their way to welcome the production. “The people living in that community see a lifetime in ten years in terms of the struggles they face on a daily basis,” Laxton says. “What we try and show in MOONLIGHT is the strength of those communities. It’s a different side of a place most of us have only seen on the evening news in connection with violence or tragedy.”