US Cities on Screen: Miami

Havana vanities come to dust in Miami.
— Joan Didion

South Florida’s Magic City, famous for its Art Deco architecture and its corporate condos in the Biscayne Bay, has the third tallest skyline in the US. It’s home to the Miami Dolphins, Vanilla Ice, and Tony Montana. It’s the city where Muhammad Ali honed his craft, the place where ‘Miami bass’ was born, and where rappers like Will Smith throw chips and live the high life. It’s also the setting of many-a Hollywood movie, in which yuppies ride jet skis and desperate drug dealers lurk in the shadows. What are the city’s most memorable on-screen moments? I’m glad you asked. First things first: fix yourself a piña colada, don your finest pastel-hued shirt, and come join us in the city nicknamed “Capital of Latin America”.

Scarface (1983)


Miami’s most iconic movie character to date: an Uzi-wielding Tony Montana insisting you say hello to his “little friend”. Al Pacino’s Cuban refugee lands in 80s Miami with nothing, yet rises to become the powerful drug kingpin whose greed gets the better of him. Though Brian De Palma’s decade-defining thriller was set in the city, it wasn’t entirely filmed there, due to the Miami Tourist board’s fears that the film would deter tourism with its depiction of drugs and gangsters (I can’t imagine why). Movie nerd-tourists can, however, visit Ocean Drive on Miami Beach, the location of the infamous chainsaw scene.

Moonlight (2016)


Barry Jenkin’s blistering portrait of the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of an African-American gay man is told against the backdrop of a rough Miami neighborhood. Chiron grows up in Liberty Square, a housing project painted in pastel colours that’s known locally as the Pork ‘n’ Beans. He attends Miramar High School and has his first sexual awakening on South Beach. It’s a Miami we’re not used to seeing in the movies – zero condos looming over speedboats in the Bay, it’s a far cry from the glitz and glam of the city in the 80s. Moonlight is achingly beautiful, intimate, and uncompromising; a Miami movie like no other.

Cocaine Cowboys (2006)


As you know, 1980s Miami was a world of excess: spotless speedboats, coke openly snorted in clubs, factory-fresh Porsches zooming beneath a shiny skyline built on drug money. This was back in the days of the “cocaine cowboys”, a group of Colombian drug dealers and their US pushers who took advantage of the city’s then-unguarded shoreline. To the Medellin cartel, it was an untapped goldmine. In this doc, you learn the true story of how Miami – ranked in a 2008 Forbes article as “America’s Cleanest City” – became the drug, murder and cash capital of the US. This doc peers behind the curtain of all that glamour and excess.

Band of the Hand (1986)


In this mid-80s crime drama, from the creators of Miami Vice, a group of teen dropouts are whipped into shape by a Vietnam vet in a tough-as-nails juvenile delinquency program. They’re dropped off in the Everglades, just southwest from Miami, where they’re forced to survive together. Newly rehabilitated and back in the city, the boys buy a vacant house in a rundown neighborhood. They slowly rebuild it, kicking out the pimps, prostitutes and dope dealers. One of which is Laurence Fishburne’s drug baron Cream, who cruises around in an open-top car. The film has 80s written all over it, boasting big blazers, mountains of coke, and an oddly fitting Bob Dylan soundtrack.

Get Shorty (1995)

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People forget that Get Shorty, a movie largely about Hollywood hucksters, was partly set in Miami. The mid-90s flick features John Travolta as Chili Palmer, a Miami mobster who goes to Hollywood to collect a debt. He’s all about his roots: “I'm from Miami-fuckin’-Beach and you wanna show me the ocean, huh?” His Miami is glimpsed in the first part of the crime caper. It’s a world of palm trees, pastel colours, and ocean views, where mobsters in mustard suits attend meetings on yachts and in barbershops. It’s a similar world to the one depicted in Scarface, only 100-times more civilized.


Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)


Who’d have thought that a madcap Jim Carey movie could capture the spirit of The Magic City. Carey’s goofy detective, who’s on a mission to recover the missing mascot of the Miami Dolphins, cruises alongside Miami Beach in his flamboyant short-sleeve shirts, through the Joe Robbie Stadium and the Orange Bowl. The film’s unforgettable opening sees him walk through the Compton Apartments on Washington Avenue as an undercover deliveryman, throwing his package around like a bowling ball. I take back what I said about Tony Montana. Ace Ventura is Miami’s most iconic protagonist.


Any Given Sunday (1999)


Oliver Stone’s fraught football film, often deemed one of the best sports movies, follows the fictional Miami Sharks. Pacino plays the coach with a short fuse whose team is struggling to make the playoffs. But it’s less about the winning and more about the narcissism and greed; in short, the culture and politics of American football. And of course the action: footballs fly through the air in slow motion, close-ups of sweat droplets on players’ faces – you can feel the tension building. The Shark’s stadium IRL is actually the Miami Orange Bowl. Other Miami spots featured are Joe Robbie Stadium, the Coconut Grove neighborhood, and Villa Vizcaya on Biscayne Bay. Even when the team travel to California, the stadium used was Pro Player Stadium, located – you guessed it – in Miami Gardens.


Miami Blues (1990)


In Miami Blues an ex-con (Alec Baldwin) returns to his old ways and is soon pursued by a relentless cop. Cue enormous aviators and white chinos; cue scenes in turquoise hotel rooms where our antihero scatters cash on a bed. It’s a neo-noir black comedy that’s an exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase across the city, taking in the Miami International Airport, the city mall, and the sleek skyline reflected in the Biscayne Bay. It’s a gloriously late-80s time capsule of the city when it was a playground for yuppies, dope-pushers, and corrupt cops.


Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach (1988)


One of Hollywood’s finest exports comes to the Atlantic coast of south Florida, as everyone’s favourite rookie police squad (minus Steve Guttenberg) returns. ‘Assignment: Miami Beach. Objective: Laughs,’ the tagline announces. The Class of ‘88 are coast-bound to celebrate Commandant Lassard’s award but put their vacation on hold when Lassard is kidnapped by jewel thieves. The Fontainebleau Hilton Resort, Miami Beach, is the colourful backdrop to the ensuing slapstick hilarity. Expect plenty of beach pranks involving sun lotion and jet skis, and cops not taking themselves too seriously (except Harris, obviously).


The Birdcage (1996)


The camera swoops across the Biscayne Bay and down through the doors of The Birdcage, a popular drag nightclub in South Miami Beach owned by Armand Goldman (a mustachioed Robin Williams). Goldman is a gay cabaret owner whose son wants him to put up a false front when introduced to his fiancée’s right-wing parents. Set around Miami’s Art Deco district, Mike Nichols’s classic centers on the club itself, which in reality was the Carlyle Hotel, situated right on the beachfront. You can also catch glimpses of The MacArthur Causeway and Ocean Drive. Just don’t blink during those beautiful cutaway shots by Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.


Want more Cities on Screen? Check out Oliver's guides to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Nashville and Memphis.


Words: Oliver Lunn