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Theatre Tales - On Movie-Going/Stage Experiences With "Black Audiences"

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by Tambay A. Obenson
June 11, 2013 11:38 AM
18 Comments
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Listening to THIS NPR piece this morning, asking whether audiences in theaters are becoming more and more boorish, and have lost their manners, made me think of the ongoing debates/discussions about how "black people" are in that environment, whether it be to see a movie, or even a play - specifically, the commonly-held belief that "we" just love to engage with the action on the screen in front of us, or with each other, about what we're watching together (certainly not all black people, by the way, hence all the quotes). And with the proliferation of mobile devices (smart phones, tablets, etc) and well as social networking involvement, annoyances like texting, tweeting (I've seen some folks live-tweet movies they're watching in a theatrical setting with others), and even making and answering phone calls, aren't entirely taboo.

I recall journalist Jeffrey Well’s rant I read a few years ago, on his reasons for not having ever seen a film with a mostly African American audience in his entire life, which got a mild chuckle out of me, including the myriad of comments that followed in response – seemingly all from other white men (but I could be wrong).

I’m not one of those post-racial types who’s naive enough to believe that we don’t still very much live segregated lives. However, I must admit that there was something still sad about Wells’ words as well as the comments of those that followed. This black “otherness” that we’ve all experienced before from whites did irk me.

Wells’ reasons for his not ever having seen (at the time anyway, maybe he has since then) a film with a mostly AA audience were several, including, as he stated, “I don’t like seeing mass-market movies with regular ticket-buyers because they make too much noise with candy wrappers and go to the bathroom too much and bring their noisy-ass kids, and partly because of the legend of urban audiences always talking back to the screen is still with us, whatever the truth of it, and I won’t have that.

He then related a story that goes back 30 years to when Ridley Scott’s Alien was in theatres, which he further used to justify his position, to comedic effect.

To the impulsive, his words (and those of his responders) may immediately register as racist; but, to be quite frank, there are theatres in New York City that I myself (a black man) avoid going to for some of the reasons he gives – notably, I’ve never quite gotten used to the chatting, and other disturbances that frequently occur when I’ve previously screened films in those particular theatres. Maybe that makes me out to be a classist, but, I much prefer to watch my movies, and see my plays and musicals, amidst a certain kind of decorum – quiet, and comfy. There’s nothing more annoying than having a theatrical experience ruined by a few, or several inconsiderate people.

However, contrary to Wells’ post, and the comments that followed, this experience they talk about isn’t some "black culture" normative. I think it’s more about class than it is about race.

Discussions of race, especially with regards to class, usually make me uncomfortable, because the notion that one person is somehow more superior to another is something I continue to grapple with; I don’t believe anyone likes to feel inferior and be condescended to. I certainly don’t; so I make an effort to challenge myself on that. It’s a conversation we can’t have without considering a wealth of factors that predetermine where each of us lands in society’s hierarchy.

It harkens back to a time when Europeans, believing themselves to be superior, entered Africa and sought to “civilize” those they referred to as “savages” – our ancestors. I’m essentially forced to question my own purview; although, honestly, I also do sometimes welcome the disruption of what I call standards of being that neither I, nor my forefathers and mothers, had a hand in setting. So, for example, when I see the young brother with his pants down to his knees, I'm sometimes cool with that, because it’s, we could say, a slap in the face of what us self-appointed so-called "proper folks" have come to deem as somehow "civilized," even though the young men who don that particular look may not be doing so in rebellion or in consideration of some kind of revolution.

All that said, I’m a product of my environment, as we all are, however varied in manner and scope; and I know that, as I sit here typing this, I’d much rather sit in a theatre and enjoy a film or play, absent of the least bit of disturbance! Sue me! So either shut up and let others enjoy the experience that they paid for, or leave the theater.

In addition to Jeffrey Wells' rant, I also recall Denzel Washington's reactions to audience members when he was on Broadway, starring in Fences, about 3 years ago:

There are all these women coming to see me, to see this actor they like, and I appreciate that… But at some shows, women are carrying on and snickering too much. Like at our Mother’s Day performance. Some audience members wouldn’t stop talking during an Act II speech. So I walked down to the front of the stage and stared at them, silently, for 30 seconds. They stopped, and I went on. 

Yapping during a movie is one thing; you're engaging a 2-dimensional object, and what you're watching isn't happening in real-time. But it has to be very distracting for stage actors, in a live setting, when audiences are vocal with their reactions to the performance.

What about you??? Your take on all this…

You can listen to (or read) the NPR piece HERE.

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18 Comments

  • fomfy | July 9, 2013 8:46 PMReply

    i think it's a question of both class AND race.

    class, because, certainly, most upper-middle-class blacks and those even more economically successful are generally conscientious enough to avoid talking in theatres. it's not "classist" to prefer silence in the theatre; i daresay it's perfectly normal to be disturbed by distractions from the most important aural component of the artforms of film and theatre.

    however, while certain other segments of lower-class citizens in this country -- in particular in *my* experience, hispanics who have been brought up in largely black neighbourhoods and have adopted many aspects of the underclass culture of inner-city black america -- it seems either disingenuous or imperceptive and quite frankly avoidant to impute the behaviour to the underclass at large. seeing a movie in a theatre in poor rural white america will not often guarantee unwanted audience accompaniment; when seeing a movie in segregated inner-city black neighbourhoods, such accompaniment is inevitable.

    it appears that the phenomenon extends to other classical "quiet zones" as well: when studying in the library at school, i am often in the area marked explicitly with signs as a "silent zone". there are other areas of the library set up explicitly for group work, and in general students respect the "silent zone" reverently. nearly every time, with one exception in memory, i hear a conversation taking place in this area, the culprits are black. i have even twice experienced black students have loud, mirthful, and purely nonacademic conversations on the telephone -- one while parked immediately in front of a sign designating the area!

    i go to a rather top-notch university, and i doubt many of the black students are in any way "underclass". in my experience they are as highly motivated and, in general, previously well educated as any other racial class of student, and they are certainly much more articulate than the typical underclass/inner-city denizen of *any* race.

    i'm sure neither the movie-goers nor the library-users are aware of their rudeness. the comportment otherwise of black students at my school leaves little room for purposeful boorishness. it simply appears to be a cultural difference in respecting the importance of silent areas; it's fairly certain that *anyone* growing up in movie theatres full of peanut-gallery conversation would find such behaviour quite normal and acceptable.

    i would suspect that the guilty students, when notified that their behaviour was disturbing others and that they are expected to keep conversation to the designated group areas, would immediately cease the offending behaviour. i suspect a similar dynamic is at hand with many of the upwardly-mobile middle-class black families who do not speak in theatres, even tho they may have once come from communities in which such behaviour was commonplace. so i don't think any reasonable person could infer any *deficiency* in black culture responsible for the discrepancy.

    i am certainly not enough an armchair anthropologist to opine on the etiology of black culture's relative lack of emphasis on "quiet zones", but i think there is more than enough evidence to suggest that the differences are not down purely to class.

  • ALM | June 13, 2013 8:42 PMReply

    That's sad that Mr. Washington had to do that. You would think that people would automatically respect an actor of his caliber.

    JMac hit on my main pet peeve in the theater: "Babies and small children .... why are you even out? Keep your butt at home and save up for babysitter money".

    How many times have I been watching a movie in the vein of "Love and Basketball" or "Love Jones", and right when they get to the love scene someone's infant starts screaming his or her head off? I also hate it when parents bring young children to really violent movies. A five year old does not need to watch "Kill Bill: Volume1 or 2".

    Parents need to rent dvds until they can find a safe, trusted babysitter.

  • Donella | June 12, 2013 3:47 PMReply

    I attended a matinee showing of Akeelah and the Bee. The theatre filled up with teachers bringing their students in on a field trip from class. Every time Akeelah spelled a word, they screamed along with her and high-fived when they got the words right. I decided that was okay because the children were learning and at least they weren't standing on the corner screaming curse words (as I've seen some middle schoolers do).

  • BluTopaz | June 12, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    Last year someone was shot in a theater because allegedly they would not stop talking after being asked several times. The shooter was White, and the names of the victims sounded like Black folks. I don't know if the crime was also racially motivated, but re: the reaction to the noise disturbance? Like Chris Rock said, I'm not saying it's ok but I understand. I don't pay $16 bucks to hear people run their mouths. I'm not there for a communal experience, and I don't care what someone thinks the next scene is going to reveal (that goes for the friends I go with too). Living in NYC I have the glorious experience of being surrounded by ill mannered slugs of every stripe, and it's gotten to the point where the only cinemas I go to are the artsy fartsy ones where everybody's all hushed soon as the film starts. Last blockbuster movie weekend I attended (some Marvel movie) my date and I were surrounded by people texting each other who were standing in the same line, folks shoving, and other assorted nonsense. If any media company ever starts streaming movies the day they are released they will become zillionaires over night.

  • Furtgo | June 12, 2013 11:25 AMReply

    The last bad experience I had was seeing an IMAX (Harry Potter maybe?) with my pre-teens only to have what looked like a school-load of extras from the tv show Gossip Girl enter and sit all over the theater. They yelled across the huge theater at each other, and texted each other throughout the movie, except for one poor pudgy pale kid directly behind us, who kept elbowing his friend to be quiet because he really wanted to watch. I assume he went back another day to watch HarryP with civilized, less-entitled folks.

    That being said, I avoid going to movies where there is a record of crime or bedbugs. And dirty restrooms.

  • pbjones1 | June 11, 2013 10:40 PMReply

    Yes I believe in theater etiquette. My pet peeve is the cell phone! It's nothing worse, as an actor or a patron, than a the cell phone going off right in the middle of a very pivotal scene. The night that Whitney passed I was attending a play my daughter was performing in, August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Right in the middle of a pivotal scene, right before the end of Act I, several cell phones were going off. One after the other. Some phones being called over and over again. It was horrid! Lol! I will say though, although I believe we should adhere to etiquette for the sake of the actors and other audience members (turning off cell phones, arriving on time, unwrapping all of your candy before the performance), as a stage actor you do want a lively audience. You want to hear them laugh, cry, snicker. It lets you know that you're doing your job. People can go overboard. But for the most part African-American audiences are the best in live theater. It is exhausting acting for a dead audience. You expend so much more of yourself hoping that they at least get the story that your telling. I saw Fences in NYC. Sat right behind Gary Sinise. Now the women were not bad like those in your article however they reacted in all the spots you expected. A man cheats on his wife, gets the woman pregnant, mistress dies during childbirth then you come home giving a long speech about how the child has nothing to do with their marriage issues? How would you expect black women, or any women for that matter, to react? I reacted and I must have seen Fences 20 times. I could tell Gary Sinise was enjoying it. :) I'm not obnoxious with my reactions but the actors definitely know that I'm getting it and their performances are that much better.

  • turner | June 11, 2013 10:36 PMReply

    I pay to see and hear what"s ON screen not the loud mouth, rude and stupid people talking on their phones or at the screen...HATE IT!

  • JMac | June 11, 2013 10:04 PMReply

    Count me in the group that enjoys certain black audience reactions for movies. When I was younger my sister and I would purposefully go to the "black" theater to watch films. Each trip was a trip. Major fun. When Spike Lee came out with his movies.... whooooo! Good times. Now, they didn't talk throughout the whole movie - just at key points when even you are thinking "what the f&#%?!" Not during quiet periods or emotional scenes. Only where you would expect a comment.

    Talking during live theater is a no-no. Gasp. Clap. Cheer. Boo. Moan. Fine in some places but not others. Carrying on conversations or talking on your cell - Absolutely Not Anywhere. Babies and small children .... why are you even out? Keep your butt at home and save up for babysitter money.

    A friend who was born and raised outside the US expressed shock at how quiet people were at the theater (and we went to a "black" theater where there was the normal amount of response.) He said almost everyone in the audience back home talks at the screen. You can barely hear the actors and people like to sing and hum along to the music even when they don't know the words. Forget about asking them to be quiet. He's Asian. It's not a black thing. I get the argument that, to a certain extent, it is white culture imposing a standard that perhaps we would not have imposed as strictly on ourselves as they do. Everything in moderation according to the setting.

  • Shak | June 11, 2013 5:45 PMReply

    "Reacting" and "Interacting like you're one of the co-stars of the performance" are two completely different things, and while I quite enjoy when elements from a film or play elicit reaction (because that's usually the intention from a writer/filmmaker point of view), I despise folks having conversations either with people in the theater or on the phone, and don't even get me started on folks with babies who won't leave when the child starts going off (I'm a parent, so no kid-hate here). I've seen big, loud, blockbuster movies with newborns in the theater (heck, I went to a drag-show last month for my birthday and I thought I was hearing things when one of the queens on stage said "Oh my God, there's an f-ing baby in the audience!").

    I have many theater actor friends, and I cant even count how many times I have wanted to snatch someone out of the theater for having long philosophical discussions about the play (do that during intermission or after the play). The last Broadway play I went to, there was a woman constantly walking around, sitting in the various empty seats (not end seats either), during the damn play! (in her world, it was ok with her to disturb everyone like that). I share those examples to say that having class and decorum isn't about race and financial status. Folks are just rude, anywhere, and you just hope you find a show that you can enjoy in peace.

  • Troy | June 11, 2013 4:11 PMReply

    Why do most people side with the presumed good guy? Am I supposed to assume that those who follow decorum are decent people? If rapists, murderers, thieves, adulterers, and racists follow proper movie going decorum does that make them a more decent a person than someone whose only transgression is having an honest reaction to a funny film? So any time we are in public the silent agreement amongst society is that we all should shoulder some of the burden for the rest of society. One that makes me acknowledge and take to heart the amount of money everybody else in the room had to spend on this movie instead trying to enjoy myself. In the future anyone dumb enough to enter a room full of narcissists shall not be surprised when it ends in their death. There is no massacre when you hold "No Mass".

  • sthn | June 11, 2013 7:06 PM

    Yeah. What the hell are they clapping at? Seriously man! So a few weeks ago I saw a matinee show of Star Trek. It wasn't packed but it wasn't empty either. And they clapped at the end! What's up!!?? Wow. If that's good entertainment for you, well then no wonder why hollywood movies are BAD! I mean damn, they flipped the ending of Wrath of Kahn for god's sake!

    I can see clapping at Cannes or some film festival, but my local theater where I paid 8.50. I don't think so.

  • Troy | June 11, 2013 3:54 PMReply

    Booty lips??? I hope you are a real self hating black and not the watermelon man. I know our movie masters request certain things of us. IDGAF! I'm a real human who has real human reactions to things I experience. I have never had quiet fun. So those who wait to clap at the end of a movie are really retarded to me. Who are they clapping for? Who is receiving there praise? Wow that one part of the opening scene was great wasn't it? I don't remember it we watched Django and that was 3hrs ago. You did see Dexter's dad get killed at the beginning and come back with a fresh shave as Mr. Candie's right hand man? Oh the guy the horse fell on? Aw forget it.
    Answer this why is the audience on the supposed good guys side? Why do most people side with who they are lead to dude with.

  • CC | June 11, 2013 9:24 PM

    Troy, look at your wrist band and then please phone home. You seem to be slightly lost.

    I mean, seriously man, the movie watching experience is much like reading a book. Depending on the subject matter of said book/movie, they will evoke an emmense array of emotions (i.e, intrigue, bewilderment, joy, laughter, sorrow, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, etc) . Consequently, all of those emotions do not solicit nor require an outward expression of "FUN". However, at the end of a book or movie, the total experience may leave one feeling satisfied or thoroughly entertained, and thus, they clap in appreciation of the overall experience (the emotional journey), or they smile or call a friend or sit back and reflect on their emotional ride. So sit yo booty lips down and talk like you have some damn sense.

  • CareyCarey | June 11, 2013 1:54 PMReply

    @ CC: I'm late to this party but not this blog. Nor the lively commentary debates. Yours being the most verbose CareyCarey ~ SKA-TRIUMPH

    Geeez, where did she come from?! I thought this post was on Theatre Tales with the "Black Audience"? Daaaayum, I heard my name, popped out of my nod, and here I am. Well, maybe it's fitting that I was conjured up 'cause I can be sorta loud... but not in theaters.

    Check that, like Tambay, I am a creature of my environment, consequently, I know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. In other words, I know when and where to pick my fights. To that point I am reminded of Jeffrey Well's statement. Although he had never been to a "hood" theater, he said "I don't like seeing mass-market movies with regular ticket-buyers... partly because of the legend of urban audiences always talking back to the screen is still with us"...

    Well, the movie watching experience with black folks could be defined as a legend (for some) but I was born and raised in the brier patch, so I'll raise my hand. Yep, I've been known to talk at the screen. But wait, like Amari said, in some theaters and while watching some movies, it's the expected experience. So I know when to hush my mouth.

    But dangit, there are times I wanted to talk at the screen but I thought better. In fact, last year I was watching Django with a room full of white folks. Yep, I was in Minnesota in a "white"city and in a "white" theater. The only black faces in attendance was me and my lady. Well, for those who saw Django, y'all surly have to agree that in some scenes the black man was kicking much ass, and at the end of that ass-kicking was a bunch of dirty, low down, racist white folks. So the more I got thoroughly involved in the plot, my emotions "almost" got the best of me. I had to hold myself back from jumping up and yelling... "NOW PISS ON THAT CRACKER!".

    But instead, I leaned over to my lady and whispered "I wish he would piss on that mfer". Shiiiit, momma didn't raise no fools, I wasn't tryin' to get stomped by a Calvin Candie crowd. That's right, I know when to hold mine. :-)

    But do I get irritated at the talking and yapping of others? Yeah I do, sometimes. Sometimes loud laughter even gets on my nerves. You know, sometimes loud laughter can be a bit too much. For instance, there was a scene in which most folks in the theater gave a mild chuckle, but this ham head behind me must have thought it was the funniest thing since Eddie Murphy's "Raw" concert. He was laughing so hard snot ran from his nose. Then he started coughing and laughing... coughing and laughing and coughing and laughing. I covered my popcorn and drink (that I smuggled in my lady's purse) so I wouldn't catch any of his cooties. But I wanted to turn around and tell him "that sh*t wasn't that funny... so close your booty lips". However, as I said, I know when to pick my fights... and boogerman didn't seem like a brotha to mess with.

    Anyway, do I talk in theaters? Sometimes. Do I know where to go if I don't or do desire a crowd of talkers? Yes I do.

  • nanci gaglio | June 11, 2013 12:48 PMReply

    Talking during a movie is rude. Period. It breaks the experience for others around. I don't think it's just African Americans who chat during a movie, but in my area, the elderly do too. A particular art house theater near my home that caters to mostly well-to-do middle-aged to elderly presents an entertaining pre-show on-screen message that requests in an unsubtle fashion: Please no talking during the movie. It asks and in the final moments, it demands. Still, they'll talk, and if you politely ask them to please be quiet, they ignore.

  • Lynn | June 11, 2013 12:35 PMReply

    I LOVE when an audience (Black) reacts to certain actions onscreen/onstage, it's kind of like the call and response you'd see in a Black church. I love that engagement between art and life, but holding discussions during a film/show is grounds for a death stare.

  • Amari | June 11, 2013 12:21 PMReply

    I feel though that for some movies it enhances the experience. Tyler Perry movies really become a spectacle when you have a good black crowd in the audience. And I think that is part of the allure. Tyler Perry maybe some what mainstream, but his films have a niche audience which reminds me of Rocky Horror Picture Show, but instead of acting out the movie, we engage with it.

  • Moviegoer | June 11, 2013 11:54 AMReply

    I don't care what race you are- talking during a movie or a play is rude and inconsiderate to your fellow audience members.

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