When the late Chadwick Boseman appeared for the first time in a Marvel movie as the superhero Black Panther, it was during a rooftop fight scene in the film “Captain America: Civil War.” I watched this moment in a crowded theater in 2016, and a second before Boseman threw his first punch, a Black guy sitting near me yelled, “Look y’all, it’s Black Panther.”
The audience erupted in hoots and applause.
The comment set the stage for what ended up being a running commentary from the many Black folks in the crowd, including myself, throughout the movie. We weren’t shushed or asked to “keep it down” by annoyed non-Black audience members. In fact, the raucous atmosphere, buoyed by a mostly Black crowd, helped amplify the viewing experience for everybody. And when the movie ended, I saw older white people chatting excitedly with groups of young Black folks in the lobby.
This is the power of movie theaters. These cinematic spaces connect people from vastly different backgrounds in ways we don’t often see in everyday life.
As a Black Millennial, I’m part of a generation whose view of the world, and the way we interact with white America in public spaces, was aided by regularly going to the movies during our childhoods. There’s an anonymity that comes with going to the movies for Black people, and it’s a kind of invisibility that doesn’t hinder our ability to socialize in the ways we wanted.
Now, because of COVID-19, there’s a generation of Black youth who might not benefit from the cinematic experiences I had.
Movie theaters have been suffering from drastic drops in revenue due to lengthy closures. Couple that with Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, which could be financial boons to movie theaters, being postponed and delayed and the future looks bleak for these spaces. The writing is already on the wall in Oakland.
Regal Cinemas at Jack London Square, a place where I’ve seen countless movies with talkative Black audiences, recently closed. The shutdown is part of a move by parent company Cineworld Group that closed 536 Regal cinemas in the U.S. because of lost profit during the pandemic.
This is all hard to witness knowing how theaters introduced many Black kids of my generation to white culture as it pertains to entertainment. In 1998, I remember “Grease” was given a special rerelease in my hometown movie theater, and, at the same cinema, “Titanic” was playing. We’d spend whole days at the theater, bouncing from watching Chris Tucker ham it up in “Rush Hour” to sitting in theaters with white people who were crying while a ship sank or dancing in their seats to songs about summer nights. It was unique and different. Most important, it was informative.
What we as Black people pulled from those experiences were similar to what white people would garner from seeing a film catering to Black folks, and hearing the Black crowd yell at the screen. This happened more in recent years as more Black people were seeing movies. According to data from the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of frequent moviegoers in the U.S. who were Black jumped from 3.8 million in 2015 to 5.6 million in 2016, which was the highest number in years.
It makes sense. Hollywood was showing more Black faces, and that increased the significance the movie theater played in our communities — we could go there to publicly celebrate our own culture on the big screen, for once.
It’s too early to eulogize all commercial theaters, but it’s worth thinking about their legacy for people who look like me. Over the past decade, these buildings were some of the last entertainment spaces in the Bay Area where there was a true mix of racial demographics. Now, the next time a movie comes out that resonates with Black culture, I can make a comment about what’s happening but I’ll be talking to myself at home, most likely.
Luckily, America’s Black demographic within Generation Z is already cognizant of the way race relations shape our country. And we’re all better because of this knowledge, a fact most evident in their ongoing energy behind the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police brutality. Still, they could benefit from having experiences in movie theaters. My hope is that months and years from now, they can go to one of these places, grab some popcorn and a seat, and see around them a reflection of the new, hopefully better, world they live in.
Justin Phillips is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.