white and black folks at movies

If, like most sensible people, you’ve been a regular and dilligent reader of my site for the past several years, you know that one of my recurrent fascinations about race relations in this country is the endless tension between white folks and black folks at movies. As an interested but largely dispassionate outsider, I just can’t get enough of the vehemence with which people object to each others’ behavior at films. I’m reminded of this by Nick Denton‘s complaint.

My experience has been that white people at a movie see black patrons’ interaction with the screen as being rude or inappropriate, and that black audiences see the white objectors as mostly frustrated by the fact that a black person has control over their ability to enjoy a movie in the manner to which they’re accustomed. They’re both right, of course.

I find it fascinating that both sides are so unwilling to see that there are simply different social mores and cultural expectations in that context between white and black society. It’d be simple to dissipate most of the frustration if people went in understanding that they had different definitions of acceptable behavior. But I’ll tell ya, given the crap that gets released to theaters these days, it’s often more amusing to watch the tension increase. The typical escalation:

  • Black person talks.
  • White person glares.
  • Black person talks louder in response to glare.
  • White person patronizingly asks/tells black person to be quiet.
  • Black person responds with specious argument about having paid the same price for the ticket, etc.

At this point, they’ve come to a fork in the road. Will the white person appeal to authority, with all of the concurrent racial implications of such an appeal, by going to theater management and raising a ruckus? Although those situations are much more fun to watch, alas, they will usually not. So we get an uneasy detente.

If all of this has happened early enough in the film you’ve watched, you can monitor the subtle cold war for the rest of the film without even missing the actual movie you’ve come to see. Key indicators: Rolled eyes, the volume with which candy is unwrapped, and overly emotive sighs. And if a cell phone rings? that’s when that Cold War goes all Cuban Missle Crisis on ya.

My preferences for audiences typically depend on the kind of film. But here’s a tip for you guys: Buddy flick with lots of explosions? Matrix 2? Chris Tucker flick? Go to a black theater. You’ve Got Mail 2? Judi Dench? Merchant Ivory period piece costume drama? White makes right!

It’s all so simple. Note to white and black Americans reading this: If it ever does come down to the racial holy war, just let us know, give us a heads-up. The hispanic and asian folks in this country will just come back out when the dust clears.