There’s a scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where Jay (played by Romany Malco) is having a supposed heart-to-heart with Andy (Steve Carrell) at Smart Tech, while a horror flick plays on the wall of TVs behind them. Apparently, something gruesome or crazy happens on the screen, because Jay reacts with a string of profanity at decibels meant for a football stadium. He punctuates it by yelling, “B***H GET OUT THE ROOM!!” at the TV.
The “loud black moviegoer” is one of the longest held stereotypes in modern American pop culture. At its core, I don’t find it offensive. I’ve been to enough theaters in dozens of cities – with various demographic makeups – to know that the boisterous black moviegoer stereotype is not wholly unwarranted. My issue has always been that this stereotype is often used to make sweeping character judgments about black culture as a whole; specifically, that we lack decorum and/or impulse control. Skewered via satire, like Jay at Smart Tech, and the stereotype can elicit gut laughs. Use it as a launching pad for cultural finger-wags and we might have some problems.
Whose rules are these anyways? It’s like, one day we look up and you can only clap politely at jazz shows. The patrons and musicians of the first two thirds of the 20th century would be rolling in their graves if they knew that an appreciative and affirmative yelp from an audience member is now frowned upon when a soloist is really getting down. I’ve never watched a Tyler Perry movie with a largely black audience at a theater, but I’ve read and heard of its boisterous atmosphere. Film critics speak about it in coded and not-so-coded language, alluding to any number of unsaid ideas. The thing is, Perry has remarked that he enjoys that quality of his audience and appreciates that his films elicit that kind of emotion out of the filmgoers. Folks go to a Perry movie for secular church. If you want some restrained, somber theater for pensive reflection go see a French film at an art house.
I bring this up because I just read that The Purge won the weekend at the box office, pulling in about $35M. This doesn’t surprise me. Last week, I accompanied a movie critic friend of mine to a screening at the AMC Empire in Times Square. We both left considerably underwhelmed by the movie itself, but we also noted that the lively, sometime raucous, crowd thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Violent, jumpy, broad movies like The Purge are supposed to encourage a moderate amount of shared emotion in the theater. Many times, promotions for those flicks feature infrared footage of audience members shrieking and jumping out of their seats. And there was plenty of that at The Purge’s screening; but I also heard a lot of gruff black-men voices that were vocal with, uh, exhortations. Stuff like, “OH HE GOT THE BIG GUN! BLAST HIM HOMIE!” Something tells me that this pleases James DeMonaco, the film’s writer and director, greatly.
The thing is, I don’t think anyone in the theater was even remotely bothered by this. You gotta know what your getting. To hear someone bellow out “BONG!” when Ethan Hawke bucks somebody down with an all-black sawed-off didn’t seem inappropriate. Peculiarly, it seemed apropos. The meek losers – like my homeboy and I – that didn’t react at all were the offenders.
If I had gone to see The Master last year and someone in the theater was yelling things like, “WHY YOU KEEP GOING FROM THE WINDOW TO THE WALL WITH YO DUMB A$$??!! HE PLAYIN’ YOU, FAM!! TAKE THAT BLINDFOLD OFF AND WHOOP HIS SCIENTOLOGIC A$$!!” …well, me and homeboy might have an exchange of unpleasantries. But loud, interactive moviegoers at a campy thriller is a different ball game.
As an adult, I go out of my way to make sure that I watch movies in empty theaters. I rarely see a movie during its opening weekend, and I almost exclusively catch matinees. Watching The Purge with loud black moviegoers, however, left me feeling quite nostalgic. It took me back to my teenage years, when I would go out of my way to ensure that I caught flicks in packed theaters so that I could get my loud black moviegoer-thing on with my crew. I think I want this experience back in my life from time to time. TSL editor Khalid Salaam spent an afternoon earlier this week imploring me to go catch a summer blockbuster at the Magic Johnson theaters in Harlem – just for the experience. So, I’ve decided to do so for Man of Steel. And just know, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t hear some version of “B***H GET OUT THE ROOM!!” at least a half-dozen times.