By JENNIFER KAY
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Seventh- graders Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner returned to middle school last Wednesday as Oscar winners, but the “Moonlight” stars still had to go back to basics with their classmates in drama class.
At Norland Middle School, they followed acting teacher Tanisha Cidel’s directions to crawl on the floor like lions and recite the tongue-twister “red leather, yellow leather” faster and faster.
Cidel played a principal in the film that also won Oscars for best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay.
“The key here is not to pretend,” she told her students. “The key here is to be real. Honest.”
In the communities where “Moonlight” was filmed, the movie has been lauded this week for its honest representation of life in black Miami, long overshadowed by the city’s glitzy hotels and hipster neighborhoods.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play “Moonlight” is based on, both grew up in the Liberty City streets and schools depicted on screen.
“It shows that Liberty City is not really a bad place and you can’t judge it by the news,”12-year-old Alex said. “When you watch `Moonlight,’ you find the beauty of Liberty City.”
“Moonlight” follows the life of a young black man – played as a child by Alex – as he grows up in poverty and comes to terms with his own homosexuality. Jaden plays his classmate.
Thirteen-year-old Jaden said he could relate to his character’s desire to help a friend, but Alex said the bullying his character suffers fortunately wasn’t something he had experienced.
Both boys said they figured it was a joke when the audience was belatedly told the top award went to “Moonlight” and not “La La Land.” In the confusion, they had to jump over other audience members to join the rest of their cast onstage.
“I jumped over this guy, and he was screaming, `What the –?’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I just won an award!’” Alex said.
An Oscars highlight for both boys: meeting “The Amazing Spider-Man” actor Andrew Garfield.
Jaden said “Moonlight” “shows Miami kids are talented not only in sports.”
Alex said he’ll next act in a television series in Chicago, starting in April.
Alex, Jaden and their teacher walked down a “red carpet’” taped to a classroom floor to talk with reporters, but they weren’t alone in the limelight: About a dozen other Norland students had roles as extras in the film.
Cidel said her students shouldn’t be the only ones inspired by the movie’s success.
“I want the parents to understand that if your child has any talent or shows an interest in the arts, take it seriously,” she said.