“Why’d you call me?” Black (Trevante Rhodes) asks Kevin (André Holland), with coiled desperation, in the final chapter of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). Black is 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 posing this key question, Jenkins has held Black’s gaze on the diner’s 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 they were teenagers, and Black was known as Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Here now, Black stays and unwraps himself slowly; Rhodes has the physicality of a warrior but his vulnerability is profound. Black’s question puts it all on the line, but Kevin falters around an explanation. Instead he walks to the jukebox and puts on the song that turned his mind back to Black—Barbara Lewis singing “Hello Stranger”—and lets it answer for him. The swoony lyrics say it all.

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Trevante Rhodes as Black and André Holland as Kevin in Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT (2016)

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 directly 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. The sound demarcates this physical space from the rest of the world of the film; a space that has a distinctly romantic mood. 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, neighbours 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.

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Tony Leung as Chow Mo-wan and Maggie Cheung as Su Li-zhen in Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)

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. It’s a space that provides 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 behaviour. 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 in Pulp Fiction (1994); and silence, when words fail or prove futile, an idea that Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964) plays with in its iconic “minute of silence.” In films as thematically and tonally varied as Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941), Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985), Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986), Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984), Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003), Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016), and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973), characters in diners sit and look at each other to uncover secrets about themselves.

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Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett and Rosanna Arquette as Marcy Franklin in Martin Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS (1985)
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Kristen Stewart as Beth Travis in Kelly Reichardt’s CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)
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Laura Dern as Sandy Williams and Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont in David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986)
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Naomi Watts as Diane Selwyn in David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

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.

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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.”

Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna and Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995)

Diners enable communication; talking brings people closer. Confused and disappointed when Kevin shows him a photo of his son, Black takes a risk and starts really talking, asking Kevin why he called. He begins to open himself like never before. In Thief (1981), also written and directed 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.”

Tuesday Weld as Jessie and James Caan as Frank in Michael Mann’s THIEF (1981)

But diners offer more than coffee and talk. There’s also food. The chef’s special of chicken and rice that Kevin prepares for Black loosens his tongue. But ultimately, in Moonlight’s diner scene, gestures express more than words. Kevin shows Black how he feels with that plate of food. It’s certainly a nurturing act, recalling the food repeatedly offered by Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe) when Black was a boy and called Little (Alex Hibbert). But between Kevin and Black it’s also an expression of desire—in both its preparation, lingered over and stretched out, and in its eating, that plate renders both men vulnerable and exposed. The plate is an object that signifies intimacy, and with its lush, dreamy atmosphere, Jenkins explicitly presents this sequence as such.

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While Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton borrow from the saturated colour palette of Wong Kar-wai, Moonlight’s diner scene also recalls Edward Hopper’s iconic 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 a Formica counter, endless coffee, 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 makes them irrefutably a part of the American story. And he offers an answer to Kevin’s question, “Who is you, Chiron?” He makes a space for him at the table—not only as a black man and a queer man, but most importantly, as a citizen of America.

* A version of this essay was originally published by Fandor on February 20, 2017