In a recent Saturday Night Live skit, Will Forte played a character named Hamilton, a racist ex-lover of “Precious” star and SNL guest host Gabourey Sidibe, who was desperately trying to win back her love. In an effort to prove that he has changed from his racist ways he mentions that he has seen her film “Precious” at the local Magic Johnson theater.
When Sidibe asked him if he liked the film, Forte’s character quipped, “The black audience was talking to the screen a lot, so I couldn’t understand 90 percent of it.”
The joke received some laughs on the small screen, but for many moviegoers, the stereotype of black folks talking in movie theaters is a serious reality — one that prompts some film buffs to choose carefully when it comes to movie venues.
Christy Harris is one such person. She has been waiting, like many moviegoers, for the arrival of Sex and the City 2. For Harris, a native of Atlanta, the film is a must-see event. So when the 32-year-old African-American elementary school teacher finally steps out to see it, she plans to head to a theater location that will draw a mainstream audience. To put it another way, Harris wants to be in a crowd with more white viewers because she believes that a whiter crowd of filmgoers translates into a quieter audience.
“I’m a Sex and the City fanatic,” says Harris. “To me it’s a social experience [but] when people talk a lot in the theater it annoys me.”
To be clear, Harris doesn’t believe that all blacks and or Latinos talk at the theater, but at the same time, she avoids going to the Cineplex in her old neighborhood where there is a predominately black movie-going audience. “There are some theaters that I would not go to [anymore],” adds Harris, “because there were kids there and they were loud.”
Roberto Guerrero, a 31-year-old nursing student, stopped going to one of the theaters in his hometown of Houston for virtually the same reasons as Harris. In fact, Guerrero says that if he doesn’t attend a matinee screening of a film, he expects to be interrupted by chatter or text messaging from other moviegoers. And like Harris, when Guerrero sits in a movie theater now, there is a great chance that he will be sitting with a mostly white audience nearby, which is what he tends to prefer at the movies.
Guerrero likes to attend the Angelika Film Center and Café in Houston, a theater chain that features art-house and independent style films. If there is talking during the film, before Guerrero identifies the culprit, he imagines them as younger and mostly likely, black.
“I avoid ghetto movie theaters, I used to go to those when I was younger, ” says Guerrero. “Usually I can tell if a black person is talking [at the movies]…that person probably doesn’t care what people think.”
At Inner City Entertainment Theaters on the South Side of Chicago, African-Americans make up about 90 percent of the audience. “I don’t have empirical data, but I would argue that a subset of African-Americans and Latinos talk to the screen on a regular basis,” says Chicago native Alisa Starks who co-owns the ICE Theaters Multiplex with her husband. However, she doesn’t believe that most blacks talk during a show.
She thinks that some movies encourage an interactive response from the audience. “Movies, good movies,” says Starks, “are designed to invoke emotion so people [respond but] that is not unique to African-Americans or Latinos or any other group. All groups can find themselves laughing or crying at the movies.”
Starks thinks that her black patrons have nuances that are possibly overlooked or perhaps under-examined. Her theater maintains a policy of silence but even so, Starks suggests that for at least some of the attendees at ICE Chatham, going to the movies might serve as their sole viable social outlet.
“Maybe it’s because those groups have very little options of other forms of entertainment,” says Starks. “They’re not skiing, they’re not rafting so they’re coming to the theater.
According to statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), African-Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the movie-going population in the U.S./Canada regions. Young people (ages 12-24) made up about 25 percent of movie-going audience in 2009.
Dr. Akil Houston, an assistant professor in the African-American Studies program at Ohio University, believes the stereotype of blacks talking in the theater may have less to do with reality than with perception.
Dr. Houston, the author of Black Images in U.S. Media, emphasizes that different ethnic groups rely on stereotypes and preconceptions of each other as a way to possibly cope with an unexpected interaction in a social setting.
“Even though we may go into a theater,” says Dr. Houston, “we don’t really know any of these people in a dark room but when we encounter different people, different triggers exist to enable stereotypes.” How those triggers are set off, or contained, depends on a series of evolving variables. “If you are in a marginalized group, your behavior is [seen as] group behavior,” Dr. Houston argues, ”[but] if you’re in the dominant group, your behavior could be individual.”
But Harris concedes that black people may tend to attach specific cultural traditions to their respective film-going experiences. “If you think about church, if you think about [other] art forms,” says Harris, ”[we] just react, and that reaction might be to call out whereas someone else’s reaction might be to cover their mouth, I don’t see why the movies would be that much different.”