Birth of a Nation

I ended up in the ticket line at the movie theater in front of the only two guys in the world tickled by the banter between Tyrese and Ludacris in the Fast and Furious movies. Their shtick, which is basically one of them saying something about how cool he is and the other doubting that espoused coolness, is the only thing about those flicks more forgettable than the plots, but these dudes behind me quoted lines back and forth and guffawed like mad. One of them was very tall, the other was very short, both wore sweatpants and hockey jerseys. The tall guy mentioned that waiting for Fate of the Furious to come out was killing him. The short guy agreed and said he was excited that Barry Windsor’s character was returning, as a good guy this time. The tall guy asked who Barry Windsor was. The short guy said, Barry Windsor, he was the bad guy in the last one. That dude from The Transporter.

You mean Jason Statham, the tall guy said.

You’re thinking of The Mechanic, the short guy said.

In case you have class and haven’t seen the films thus mentioned I’ll make clear that the tall guy was definitely thinking of Jason Statham, who was the bad guy in the seventh Furious movie and the star of The Transporter and The Mechanic. Somehow he both knew who Jason Statham was and thought Statham had a doppelganger named Barry Windsor. The world is full of miracles and mysteries.

They started trying to name the villains of the Furious movies in order. Ridiculous, everyone knows the only way to keep track of the series is by noting the way Vin Diesel’s outfits change film-to-film to suit his middle-age spread. In the first couple he wears tank tops to show off his gym bod, in the fifth the tank top becomes a sleeveless shirt to cover his tummy, in the sixth he suddenly has sleeves, by the seventh he’s basically wearing a sweater. Who knows what he’ll have on in the next one, maybe a cable-knit turtleneck under a pea coat.

The tall guy mentioned that Helen Mirren has been cast in Fate of the Furious; the short guy said he was more excited that Charlize Theron was in it. They started listing films in which either actress appeared nude. The line crawled due to there being only two clerks selling tickets and one of them being tied up with a couple who’d apparently come into the theater with no idea what movie they wanted to see or even what was playing, as though they’d been driving along and saw a theater and impulsively swerved into the parking lot to investigate. They asked the clerk to name the cast of each film showing, to describe the plot, provide the running time, then asked if she’d seen it before looking at one another and saying, What do you think?

I don’t know, what do you think?

I love going to the movies more than just about anything, but they don’t make it easy. By “they” I mean “everyone.” Sometimes the line is long, sometimes there are goons behind you in it. Sometimes your fellow audience members act as though their ticket cost ten times what yours did and entitles them to roughly two hours of consequence-free psychopathy. A century or so ago some brilliant huckster in the employ of the corn lobby sold the world on the idea that the ideal snack to enjoy in a crowded room where people are straining to listen carefully to something was popcorn, which is impossible to enjoy quietly even if you’re not shoveling it into your maw in great heaping handfuls as though there’s going to be a prize for whoever can pack on the most pounds during the picture.

Babies cry, teens grope, old folks… good God, nothing’s worse than an old person in a movie theater. They don’t understand the plot or what anyone is saying, they chat loudly, they’re in and out for bathroom breaks…give me the choice between a movie theater filled with either nine hundred rats or a dozen senior citizens, I’ll take the rats with no hesitation and simply put my feet up on the seat in front of mine.

Not to mention the threat of a maniac bursting in through the emergency exit and shooting everyone with a machine gun, or that some sinister fuck might hide a needle infected with hepatitis or HIV in the headrest—a very real, super irrational fear that haunted me as a child and, truth be told, still seems like a plausible concern today.

For some reason I’m nervous that admitting I’m afraid of contracting HIV or hepatitis is insensitive to people afflicted with either. But it isn’t, right?

Right?

I don’t know. I often think I don’t know how to be in the world, I don’t know what to say to people, I don’t know how to act, I don’t know what’s acceptable or how to get along. Which is maybe why I like the movies, because the movie theater is someplace where it’s possible to have a pleasant communal experience. Those Fast and Furious creeps might not be the kind of dudes I’d like to hang with, but at the movie theater we can be simultaneously entertained and intellectually engaged, we can see a comedy and laugh at the same thing, see a drama and cry together, see a horror movie and flinch at the same moment.

Ideally.

I went to see Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s take on Nat Turner’s rebellion, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, a while back. Had the theater all to myself, which despite what I just said about having a communal experience, feels like a treat. I took a seat in the center of the first row of the stadium section of the theater so I could rest my feet on the railing. The movie began.

Fifteen minutes into the movie I heard a commotion to my left, saw a group of six elderly African-American women walk in. They were all dressed up, nice dresses and hats, vocally upset about how dark it was in the theater, surprised the movie had already started. They took out their phones to shine enough light to find seats. I was annoyed but figured they’d settle once they sat down. The group split in two, then sat on either side of me.

This is a true story. They absorbed me into their group. And didn’t turn their phones off once they sat down, either. The lady to my left started texting, the lady to my right dove into a game of Candy Crush. The texting lady told the Candy Crush lady that someone named Steven hadn’t responded yet, the Candy Crush lady said she should text him again. She did.

Let me reiterate, I’m sitting directly between them. They gave no indication that they knew I was there. I didn’t know what to do. I’ve only one time ever asked someone in a theater to be quiet, during Spider-Man 2 when the couple of guys beside me wouldn’t pipe down about how they should have snuck into White Chicks (I think) instead. I asked them to be quiet and they started screaming, wanted to fight me, pelted me with Skittles as an usher dragged them away.

I didn’t think these old ladies would pelt me with Skittles but… could a white guy ask some African-American women to shut up during Birth of a Nation? I was scared to even get up and change my seat; that they’d take offense to my moving, like I didn’t want to sit near them. Which I didn’t, but not because of their race, because they were being assholes. But if I didn’t complain and stayed put, wasn’t that actually treating them differently because of their race? Isn’t real equality admitting that people can be rude shitheads regardless of creed or color?

Is that what people mean when they say THIS PC CULTURE HAS RUINED EVERYTHING?

Maybe? Probably not? Something tells me that people who might look at this situation and say THIS PC CULTURE HAS RUINED EVERYTHING might articulate their position to mean something like what I’m talking about, but are actually more annoyed that they have all these racist jokes they’re suddenly uncomfortable telling by the water cooler, and don’t know any other jokes.

Fuck them.

The lady furthest to my left leaned forward and looked at the exit and started shouting:

Hello?

Hello!

Excuse me?

Excuse me!

Hello…hello…hello…

…Until a confused usher wandered in to see what was going on. She told him they’d arrived a little late and asked if he could talk to someone about winding the movie back to the beginning. He said that wasn’t possible and left. The lady reacted like he’d spit in her face, they all egged her on, meanwhile I had no idea what was happening on the screen. I faked a coughing fit, hopped the railing and walked out into the hallway, thinking they couldn’t possibly be offended that I walked out because I was coughing, in fact they’d be glad I was doing them a favor by taking it outside, then go back in and take a seat far enough away that their phones and conversation wouldn’t bug me, which would also be doing them a favor because they wouldn’t have to move to let me get back to my seat.

(Was I being racist by wanting them to think I was doing them a favor?)

Out in the hallway the usher who’d come into the theater was telling another usher what the woman had asked him.

She looked so pissed, the first usher said.

What an idiot, the other usher said.

I don’t think there’s a moral to this story. I don’t have a hot take on race or American society that I’m using this to illustrate. I’m scared some people might be inclined to read this and think poorly of the women because of their race, that some people might read this and think poorly of me…

I ended up in a seat all the way at the front, where the light from their phones wouldn’t bother me. They kept talking through the rest of the movie, they seemed to think it was only okay. I agreed.

Out in the hallway, right before I walked back in post-faux coughing, the first usher told the second, This job would be fun if it weren’t for the customers.

Sure, the second usher said. But if there weren’t any customers, there’d be no job.