The first time I saw Moonlight, I was one of three silent people in the audience. It was November 22, 2016. I entered an empty auditorium in the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham, and took a seat. Moments later, a couple walked in and sat a few rows behind me. Being an avid fan of the independent production house A24, distributor of Moonlight, I had been Googling the film for weeks. At long last, a showtime appeared on the Carolina Theater website. I set an alarm on my phone, and when the day came, I Ubered myself down to the theater just a few days before Thanksgiving break. I don’t know anyone who would be into this movie, I thought, falsely. I’d better just go alone. I like seeing movies alone. No noisy theater. No one to ask you, “So what did you think?” as you shuffle across the parking lot in a post-movie trance, when all you want to do is silently ruminate and let your thoughts remain thoughts rather than carving them crudely into words. So I was alone.
Just over three months later, I sat in the center of a packed auditorium at Duke University. It was a 10 PM showing of Moonlight, just four days after the film had clinched the title of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Excited chatter reverberated off the walls as we sat waiting for Moonlight to start. The lights dimmed. It began.
It wasn’t a silent theater this time. There was laughing, talking, whispering, coughing, and every now and then, the clatter of a cell phone hitting the ground. There was additional, audience-provided dialogue to counterpoint the happenings on screen. Here’s a selection of things I heard:
“I love her. She’s so pretty.” Whispered somewhere behind my left shoulder as Janelle Monáe first appeared as Teresa, motherly caretaker of the central character Chiron.
This all-important word flashed onto the screen as the title of the third act of the film. Audience members from every corner of the auditorium uttered the word, one after the other, in surround sound.
“That was good.” Spoken as the film ended and the word “Moonlight” materialized on the screen.
And of course, there was laughter. Thunderous, booming laughter. Often, this laughter came in unexpected places. A wave of giggling rippled across the audience when young Chiron, in the first act of the film, asked his newfound father figure Juan if he sold drugs. Instead of an uncomfortable silence, which I’d experienced in my first viewing of Moonlight, what I heard were rolls of laughter. As Chiron and Kevin leaned in hesitantly for a kiss in the second act, people laughed. In the third act, every knowing look exchanged between the grown-up versions of these characters elicited peals of laughter. Moments that I saw as poignant and painfully emotional came across in a very different way to this new audience.
I say this not to complain, but because it transformed the way I see this work of art. The laughter was surprising, but surprisingly logical as well. It always fit perfectly into pauses in the characters’ conversations, as if the film was designed that way. Perhaps it was. All I know is, I never so much as smirked during my first viewing of Moonlight, but in my second viewing, I found myself breaking into an uncontrollable smile whenever the audience laughed. The audience essentially gave me permission to appreciate the lighter, comedic aspects of the film. We laugh at Chiron’s insecurity and childlike hope in the face of love, not to mock him, but because we’ve all been there. Moonlight is not a comedy, not even close. But it is a movie filled to the brim with optimism and warm nostalgia. It is not just a tragedy centered around a desperate, lonely man. It’s sad and happy, just like life itself. The group of Duke students with whom I saw the film for a second time allowed me to see that. So, thank you, loud Duke students.
My second viewing of Moonlight revealed new layers. I came to see the story as deeply tied to Judeochristian concepts, such as baptism, “turning the other cheek”, and taking on the sins of others. I noticed a strange solitary strobe light, first blue, then red, which punctuates dramatic beats at two points in the film. And I began to think that the titular subject, moonlight, is a symbol of hope or optimism. Moonlight is still mysterious, but I think I’ve begun to see what it truly means.
The fact is that much like the protagonist of Moonlight, the film itself has grown and matured radically before my very eyes. What started as a “little indie film that could” has exploded into the mainstream, cemented by its Best Picture win. Moonlight is huge now, bigger than I could have ever imagined. The difference in the size of the two audiences demonstrates that. I think that Moonlight always aimed for world domination. The sample at the very start of the film is the same as the one that opens Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 megaseller and artistic opus To Pimp a Butterfly. The three-act, three-actor structure is ambitious to say the least, and reminiscent of Boyhood. Clearly, Moonlight was positioning itself in the same arena as these two masterpieces. But the movie has also changed, in my mind, from a depressing, yet resonant portrait of self-denial into a bittersweet portrayal of a man’s winding journey, one without a definite ending. Chiron doesn’t overcome adversity in the film. It many ways, he succumbs to it. But by the film’s end, you start to see the light coming through the wall he built around himself. The moonlight, in the end, is inescapable.