The Sad, Surreal Experience of Seeing an Audience Laugh at Moonlight

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Moonlight. Photo: A24

Last weekend I watched Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s remarkable coming-of-age film, again. It was a Friday night at BAM, and the screening was completely sold out. Early on, though, one scene made me realize I might have picked a bad audience: It’s in the first third of the movie, where our young hero Chiron is sitting at the dining table with this surrogate parents, Juan and Teresa (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe). He asks them, point-blank, “What’s a faggot?” It’s a moment that feels like a gut punch. When I first saw it, I held my breath, waiting to hear what Juan would say. He explained that it was a negative word used to describe men who liked other men. Then came the next question, “Am I a faggot?” A group of women behind me started giggling at the first question and were full-on laughing by the second — so much so that they drowned out Juan’s response. I was perplexed: Were we watching the same movie?

In the darkness of a theater, no one can see you side-eye. And perhaps emboldened, the laughter only got worse as the film went on. There was a noticeable pattern: Every time there was any expression of gay male intimacy, they laughed. They tittered during the scene where teen Chiron has his first sexual experience on a beach, and they let out wolf whistles when we first meet adult Chiron, shirtless and muscular. (Although to be fair, I thought something similar in my head). And while we got to the film’s emotional climax, the diner scene between Chiron and his grown-up crush Kevin, it was like they were a studio audience watching a sitcom.

The first time I watched Moonlight was at a press screening. As is often the case, there weren’t that many people in the theater, and I was sitting with a couple of friends. It felt like a private experience, the perfect environment to see a movie like this. That first time, I loved the diner scene. It’s sexy — flirtatious and a little tense. The specter of all those years gone by hangs in the silences between the two men. I remember nervously waiting for Kevin to recognize Chiron, and when he did, something came loose inside of me, and I just started crying. I understood it as that moment of being seen by someone else for the first time, and what an electric, disorienting feeling that could be. Indeed, that’s how Jenkins shoots it: The audio doesn’t sync up with the visual for a brief second. It’s like the world is collapsing in on itself.

I was nervously anticipating this scene in the theaters the second time, but I couldn’t get into it. As Chiron imagined Kevin smoking outside the diner, there was too much laughter. The audience thought he was funny, maybe corny as hell. But for me, he was hazy and smoldering, just like a dream. As a gay man who often felt like he had to suppress his desires, I understood that fantasy acutely. And that’s when I became keenly aware that I was a gay man watching the movie around a lot of straight people. Listening to their laughter, I couldn’t help but feel that it was demeaning, a way to neuter and compartmentalize gay male intimacy as a punch line.

This isn’t to say that I think Moonlight doesn’t have its funny moments. In fact, it’s a mistake to think that because a film is about a gay black boy growing up in poverty it must necessarily be a tragedy. There’s joy, love, and humor stitched into the movie, along with alienation and hardship. In fact, there is a beat of humor in that scene where young Chiron asks Juan and Teresa about whether he might be gay: Juan starts to give a caveat, but Teresa gives him a little shake of the head: Not right now, honey. It’s charming and sweet, a moment that acknowledges young Chiron has a lot of life ahead of him.

I realize we all watch movies differently. I myself have laughed inappropriately at a number of films: I guffawed during Saw when one of the prisoners realizes that he can free himself by cutting off his own foot. (Hence the title: Saw.) I laughed when Mel Gibson tells Joaquin Phoenix, “Swing away, Merrill!” to kill the aliens in Signs. Most recently, I laughed during the climactic scene of Stonewall, when the made-up gay white protagonist “starts” the Stonewall riots and screams something about freedom like he’s in Braveheart. I too sometimes find serious things ridiculous, and it’s likely that I ruined someone else’s viewing experience with my own very loud laughing.

Sometimes, you watch a movie with exactly the right audience. Earlier this year I watched Train to Busan, a Korean zombie thriller movie at an AMC in Times Square. It was packed with young Korean students, no doubt enrolled in colleges around New York (I can spot BB cream from a mile away). Watching a summer blockbuster with a bunch of Korean kids made me feel like I was back in Seoul again. The movie was tailor-made for this audience: They screamed and jumped and whooped, and their reactions heightened the joy of an already fun movie.

Ultimately, you never know how an audience — or even you — will react to a film. Each viewer brings their own experience into the film, their own desires and expectations. But part of that experience means moments like this one in Moonlight — moments where the dissonance between audience members becomes distinct — are inevitable. I won’t be able to ever fully understand what the laughter in Moonlight meant, just that it made me uncomfortable. But it’s all fine. I’ll just try not to sit next to you again.