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Monday, March 4, 2024

Smith: The Black movie theater experience

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“A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.”

Such is the way that Dictionary.com defines nostalgia. Of course, nostalgia is not something that one merely intellectually knows; nostalgia is something that one inexpressibly feels. Etymologically speaking, the word originates in the notion of homesickness.

One of the key formative (and, yes, nostalgic) experiences of my childhood was going to movie theaters and drive-ins in which most of the patrons were African American. Given the demise of nearly all such venues in Indianapolis, homesickness is an appropriate way to describe the sense of loss that I have regarding those erstwhile experiences.

As a young child I learned that Black people, especially when packed in crowded theaters, love to talk to characters on the screen. Not just casually; we do it a lot. My children have never experienced the joy (and frustration) of being in a movie theater with dozens of other African Americans who apparently believe that the folks on screen can hear our running commentary or even heed our warnings: “Girl, don’t go in there!” “Brother, what are you doing?!”

There is an ethereal realm between abject annoyance and ecstatic hilarity. I know that plane exists because my experiences in theaters transported me there on several occasions. On the one hand, it can be incredibly irritating to listen to incessant chatter while trying to focus on the movie. On the other hand, there is something almost sacred about the communal experience of cavorting with complete strangers with whom one can forge an immediate — if ephemeral — bond.

Of course, not all of us talk to the screen. Many of us are perfectly content to talk to each other — while the movie is playing. One of my favorite experiences in this regard occurred when my then-girlfriend and I went to see “Waiting to Exhale.” Wesley Snipes made an unexpected — and very welcome — cameo. When he sauntered into a scene with Angela Bassett, several Black women in the theater began to swoon and loudly call his name. One brother, who clearly had nothing better to do, began to mock these sisters’ exultation. One of the women yelled at him, “You just mad because that you ain’t no Wesley Snipes!” Without skipping a beat, the man replied, “Well, you ain’t no Angela Bassett!” The theater erupted in laughter.

I experienced a different vibe when I went to see Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” There were several powerful, evocative scenes in the movie, but three of them engendered a particularly strong call-and-response reaction from the congregation … I mean audience.

One is the scene in which Denzel Washington (as Malcolm) gathers members of the Nation of Islam in front of a police station in which one of their members is being held. Cheers and shouts of “That’s right!” filled the room. (And who can forget the iconic gesture of Malcolm lifting his hand to direct the “soldiers” to leave the premises?)

Another scene is when Denzel and Angela Bassett (as his girlfriend, Betty Sanders) are talking on the phone. Malcom abruptly asks her to marry him. Betty immediately and effusively agrees, at which point multiple women in the theater screamed.

The final scene is when Malcolm and Betty are arguing. Several women shrieked when Malcolm yells, “Don’t you raise your voice in my house!”

I truly miss those days.

The two inside theaters that my family and I frequented most were General Cinema at Eastgate and Lowes Cherry Tree (both on Indianapolis’ east side). Neither the theaters nor the companies that owned them still exist. (AMC Theatres purchased General Cinema in 2002; Lowes Theaters merged with AMC in 2006.)

These theaters were legendary among African Americans. They were more than mere places of entertainment; they were community centers. They were places that we could go and be unapologetically Black.

Most of us are familiar with the lament, “You can’t go home again.” For me, it could be said that “home is where the Black theater is.” Unfortunately, those domiciles no longer exist in my native city.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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