Source: Howard Bryant / ESPN
In 1989, as something of a social experiment in watching how film confronted America’s deepest divides, I saw Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” on consecutive days. I was 20 then, a student at Temple University. The first showing was on a Friday night, a packed house on 15th and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia. It was a raucous scene, young whites and blacks leaving the film as they had watched it, at full decibel, electrified by the raw power of the searing images on the screen.
The next day, I took in the afternoon show at the Roxy on 20th and Sansom in Rittenhouse Square, the famous art house appealing to an older clientele, which watched the same movie that was playing so noisily just a few blocks away. When it was over, the majority of the audience stared solemnly at the screen until the final credits rolled, and left the theater just as they had watched it — in total, stunned silence.
There was “Malcolm X” in 1992 at the old Alexandria on Geary Street in San Francisco, where blacks and whites in the audience watched the film (and each other) uneasily as Spike Lee’s opening montage contained the still raw, still fresh image of several Los Angeles Police Department officers mercilessly beating an unarmed Rodney King.
There were others. I skipped Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” but a few months ago, I sat in the theater and watched “Lincoln,” amused that so many patrons, who must have been writing love notes to their sweethearts or making paper footballs instead of paying attention during 10th-grade history, were so gripped by the tension of the 13th Amendment vote. (Spoiler alert: It passed, which explains 1. why there’s a 14th Amendment; 2. why the theater was integrated; and 3. why in part the president dies at the end of the movie.)
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