“Why’d you call me?” Black (Trevante Rhodes) asks Kevin (André Holland), with coiled desperation, in the final chapter of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. He’s emboldened by several glasses of wine, yet there’s an implicit mix of yearning and fear in his probing, as he sits in a blood-red vinyl booth at the Miami diner where his childhood friend now works. Moments before asking this key question, Jenkins has held Black’s gaze on the door, teasing the possibility that he might get up and walk away.
But an enigmatic call in the night from Kevin has brought Black from Atlanta to this yellow-lit diner. He’s come too far to leave now—he’s followed the open road like a thread of hope. We imagine his head on that drive, full of desire and sandy saltwater memories of his brief sexual encounter with Kevin on the beach years ago, when Black was known as Chiron. Here now, Black stays and unwraps himself slowly; Rhodes has the physicality of a warrior but his vulnerability is profound. The question puts it all on the line, but Kevin falters around an explanation, so he gets up and puts on the song that turned his mind back to Black—Barbara Lewis singing “Hello Stranger”—and lets it respond. The swoony lyrics say it all.
Time slows down; space reduces to just these two black men’s bodies. As Lewis sings, Kevin pauses, touching his neck, exposed in the song’s confession, and Black is enthralled, unable to look away. They exchange glances, cautiously, then more confidently, as Kevin returns to the booth. Black is wary, lowering his eyes, as Kevin, now less guarded, looks straight at him. What transpires between these men isn’t just a quiet, emotional revelation—it’s empathically sexy too.
Moonlight’s interlude at the diner begins and ends with the jingle of a bell. It’s a sound that demarcates the scene from the rest of the world of the film. This heady romanticism is just as acute in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), in two short scenes that also unfold in a diner. Here, in 1960s Hong Kong, neighbors Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung) take the first tentative steps toward romance, as they discover their spouses are having an affair with each other. Slow plumes of cigarette smoke act as visual motifs, taking us in and out of the first diner scene where Chow and Su drink coffee as Nat King Cole serenades in Spanish. Words are measured and few, but a close-up on Chow’s hands holding a cigarette, and the elegance of Su’s melancholy gaze, linger.
Through gesture and framing, the diner becomes erotically charged. But this is just one of its cinematic functions. Scenes set in a diner offer a pause. They’re spaces that provide respite and sustenance—a stop on the road, or at the end of a journey. Characters sit still and the camera rests like a spotlight on their behavior. We concentrate on them as they concentrate on each other. We expect conversation, like the torrent of words Quentin Tarantino delivers in the diner-scene bookends of Pulp Fiction (1994); and silence, when words fail, an idea that Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964) plays within its iconic “minute of silence.” In films as thematically and tonally varied as Diner (1982), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Mulholland Drive (2001), Thelma & Louise (1991), Paris, Texas (1984), and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), characters in diners look at each other to uncover secrets about themselves.
Jenkins makes this dynamic of confrontation and disclosure explicit from the first moment Black and Kevin face each other as adults. When Black arrives he sits first at the counter, seeing Kevin before Kevin sees him. But when Kevin appears, the camera catches his reaction in close-up—he looks straight into the camera, with surprise, but also with longing. The shot holds its breath. A reverse shot of Black in close-up increases the tension, as we understand his pleasure in finally, really, being seen.
One of the greatest of all revelatory movie face-offs takes place in Michael Mann’s blue-lit Heat (1995). Here, the diner is neutral territory for Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), who sits down for a cup of coffee with career criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro). Heat is often categorized as an action film, but as the diner scene reveals, it’s ultimately a film about inaction—about two men sitting still and wrestling with the question, like Black, of who they really are. Heat’s diner scene is existential in its scope, despite its intimacy—“a couple of regular fellas” discover they are two sides of the same obsessive, workaholic coin. As Vincent explains, “I don’t know how to do anything else.” Neil agrees, “Neither do I.”
Diners enable communication; talking brings people closer. Confused and disappointed by Kevin’s photo of his son, Black takes a risk and starts really talking, asking Kevin why he called. In Thief (1981), also by Mann, ex-con Frank (James Caan) conveys similar vulnerability and need. Mann stages a 10-minute scene in a Chicago diner—a date between Frank and Jessie (Tuesday Weld) that marks a turning point for both. While it begins with them arguing, amplifying their differences, the scene closes with them holding hands, Mann framing the contracted space in a prolonged close-up. Frank, like Black, yearns for something more than the life he has. He tells Jessie about his past, his time in prison, and his dreams of growing old with her by his side. “I have run out of time. I have lost it all,” he pleads, tenderly, “So I’m just asking you to be with me.”
Diners offer more than coffee and talk. There’s also food. The chicken and rice Kevin prepares for Black loosens his tongue. But ultimately, in Moonlight’s diner scene, gesture and silence express more than words. Kevin shows Black how he feels with that plate of food. It’s certainly a nurturing act—recalling the food offered by Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe) when Black was little (and called Little). But it’s also an expression of desire, and with its meditative, dreamy atmosphere, Jenkins explicitly presents the sequence as such.
While Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton borrow from the saturated color palette of Wong Kar-wai, Moonlight’s diner scene also recalls Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks. The painting adds another reference here—the diner as a place of lonely isolation. But this cultural narrative flips once Black steps inside the diner where Kevin works. He’s seeking the opposite of solitude; he wants communion, a place to belong. Diners, like Hopper’s painting itself, convey a recognizably American iconography. There’s Formica and cherry pie. A seat at the counter is democratic; a booth by the window offers a more private vista. By locating these black, queer bodies within this quintessential American setting, Jenkins repositions them as irrefutably a part of the American story. And he offers an answer to Kevin’s question, “Who are you, Chiron?” He gives him a seat at the table—not only as a black man and a queer man but most importantly, as a citizen of America.
For the full 2017-Oscars-on-Fandor experience, go here.