A Close Look at the Iconic Diner Scene in Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’
By Paul Dallas
Surprisingly few truly great culinary sequences exist in movies. I’m talking about the kind you can never un-watch, like the lovers passing a raw egg back and forth in their mouths until the inevitable gooey climax in the 1985 Japanese classic Tampopo. Food in today’s movies tends to lack humor or sensuality or both — the stale tourist porn Eat Pray Love, or even the art-house equivalent, I Am Love, which ultimately just offers up rich people swooning over fancy food. I’d rather have the rice and beans served up in the Miami diner we visit late in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-worthy Moonlight. The food — and the filmmaking — hit all the right notes.
The magical ingredient in the movie, of course, is desire. Jenkins is a cinephile and has learned a thing or two from Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) and Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love (2000). Both are sensual masterpieces of forbidden desire, keenly attuned to bodies and texture. To understand what Jenkins is up to in the shimmering 13-minute climax of Moonlight, think of Maggie Chung dressed to the hilt and carrying a container of steaming take-out noodles through a grimy alley in slow motion, accompanied by the mournful strains of “Yumeji’s Theme.” It condenses an entire life’s worth romantic melancholy into a single, unforgettable sequence.
Moonlight similarly compresses a world of anguish and pent-up desire into one elegant cinematic sequence. By the time we get to the iconic diner scene in Moonlight, in the film’s third and final section, we’ve spent 82 minutes with Chiron, the young black man struggling with his sexuality. Jenkins has built up incredible tension inside of Chiron and inside of us. Now in his late 20s, he is no longer a scrawny kid but a hulking man with a grill played by former athlete Trevante Rhodes. But he’s still so locked up in himself he can barely spit out more than two-word responses, even to Kevin (André Holland), the man with whom he shared his first sexual experience a decade ago.
The set-up is pure cinematic nostalgia: two ex-lovers meeting in a half-empty diner after-hours. As soon as Chiron walks in, Aretha Franklin’s 1967 “One Step Ahead” is on the soundtrack, and we’ve stepped back in time. The contemporary twist, of course, is that the two lovers are black men. Jenkins has the actors look directly in the camera when addressing each other, bringing us inside their experience. Kevin, in a white apron, is all charisma and warmth and stares directly. Chiron, in black, is all wary reserve, refusing to make eye contact for long. “I could just hit you with that Chef’s Special,” Kevin entices.
Any other filmmaker would rush this scene to get us somewhere else. But Jenkins digs in, drawing our attention away from plot and toward mood and atmosphere. As Chiron settles into a booth, we follow Kevin back to the kitchen where he lovingly spoons rice, ladles black beans, and squeezes limes — all in slow motion and accompanied by melancholy strings and pizzicato. The food is an intimate offering — an excuse to be close, to get close. But Jenkins disrupts our expectations of the scene by breaking it up into a series of movements, like music. Kevin must attend to other diners, so he comes and goes, creating a rhythm. Each visit to Chiron’s table peels away another layer of his armor, and the effect is a scene that ebbs and flows. Desire simmers, but never spills over.
After the meal, Chiron finds the courage to ask, “Why did you call me?” Kevin’s only response is to go to the jukebox and play Barbara Lewis’ 1966 hit “Hello Stranger.” What more is there to say? ///
Paul Dallas’ writing has appeared in Artforum, Brooklyn Magazine, Filmmaker, and the Village Voice. He has also organized film series for the Guggenheim Museum and Maysles Cinema in New York. He is currently at work on two feature documentaries.