'Who Needs These Films, Anyway?'


I had only a passing interest in the violence that marred the July 12 premiere of "Boyz N the Hood" -- until I stepped inside a Huntington, N.Y., video store.

There I heard the only other customer tell the counter clerk abou police cars parked outside a cinema complex the night before. The clerk guessed that the customer passed the theater after a teen-ager was stabbed -- right after the showing of "Boyz N the Hood."

" 'Boyz N the Hood'? Never heard of it. What kind of movie is that?" the customer asked.

"It's a black film," the clerk said. Then, after noticing that I heard his comment, he added: "I mean it's a black film about gangs."

This racial distinction served as the fuel the customer needed. In a vitriolic tone, he proclaimed: "It figures. They should stop showing those movies. Trouble follows those movies wherever they go. Who needs those films anyway?"

Maybe it was because the clerk didn't respond that the #i customer decided to look over his shoulder to see me, a black woman, standing behind him. His self-ignited diatribe on black films came to a halt. I endured an uncomfortable silence before I rented my movie and departed.

Since this conversation, the question of "Who needs those films anyway?" has stayed with me. Did the customer ask this question in December when, at the showing of "The Godfather III" at a movie theater in Valley Stream, N.Y., one teen-ager lost his life and another an eye after shots were fired in the theater? Did he question the validity of movies by Italian directors? I don't think so.

Yet, I'm sure the man did not reach his conclusion in isolation. How could he when the media bombard the public with reported links between real violence and reel violence? Lately the link appears to be reserved for black movies. Remember how some predicted an outbreak of Watts-style violence once blacks saw Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing"? It never happened.

True, two persons have died and more than 30 have been injured since the opening of "Boyz," but that's nothing compared to the Astor Place riot in 1849 -- when 22 persons died in a Manhattan rampage resulting from a rivalry between two Shakespearean actors and their fans. The incident prompted the Philadelphia Public Ledger to write: "There is now in our country, in New York City, what every good patriot has hitherto considered it his duty to deny -- a high class and a low class."

Classism is what the violence in theaters is all about -- how else can you explain violence being associated with a movie that has "Increase the Peace" as its credo? Movie theaters are filled with the same problems of violence that cross over into every other stratum of society.

People come to see "Boyz" with the belief that it is a movie tailored to their realities of street temptations, fatherless homes and incessant violence. So those accustomed to violence are no less likely to leave their weapons at home to see a movie than they are to leave their weapons behind to go to school, a shopping mall or to cruise in a car down a boulevard. The way they see it, you never know when you have to protect yourself from being "smoked," or killed.

And they are the ones who need movies like this one the most. Director John Singleton wrote a script with a strong anti-violence message. His main character transcends and eschews the drug-filled and violent trappings of his existence for the straight, college-bound, non-violent path that he is guided to by his father. The movie opens with the information that: "One out of every 22 black American males will be murdered each year. Most will die at the hands of another black male."

"Boyz" is a movie about how one avoids becoming a part of that statistic. Upon seeing "Boyz," I was struck by the lack of overt violence in the movie, especially compared to "Terminator 2," a movie with a much higher body count. And, curiously, "Boyz," is currently grossing more per screen -- $5,170 per screen compared to $4,520 -- than "Terminator 2." That reflects the demand for black films, which continue to be cramped and ghettoized in distribution. ("Boyz" is currently showing in just 920 theaters to 2,289 theaters for "Terminator 2.")

Despite theater ghettoization, the financial success of black movies such as "Boyz" answers the video-store customer's question of "Who needs those films anyway?" I'd like to think that the gun- and knife-toting moviegoers who ruined the film's opening have since learned something from watching it, which might explain why the incidents of violence have died out after one week.

One of the more poignant scenes in the movie occurs when "gangsta" rapper Ice Cube, whose portrayal of the criminal Doughboy stands out as one of the best in the film, voices his failure to understand why no one cares about the senseless killings surrounding him. "Either they don't know, don't show or don't care about what's goin' on in the hood," he concluded.

It's when people such as the video-store customer start caring about what's happening in Doughboy's hood that we will find some end to the violence that dares to seep into our arena of escapism -- the movie theater. Unfortunately, the trend is still to ignore what's happening in the hood, or neighborhood of the disenfranchised, until their problems cross over into the different hood of the movie theater.

Susan Howard wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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