“Don’t do it, Shuri!”
I was curled into a ball in the obscenely comfortable reclining seat at the just-opened Harbor East Cinemas during an opening weekend showing of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Princess Shuri is royalty, a genius and basically a superhero, not to mention fictional. But of course I knew she needed my guidance at that moment.
My 9-year-old, nestled next to me, gave me a half-amused, half “You’re embarrassing, Mom” look.
“Whatever,” I whispered. “I’m at the movies.”
I was not the only person cheering, being exaggeratedly shocked and openly weeping. The theater was full of equally enthusiastic people, most of them Black, and seemingly there for a happening. Some were dressed either in white, as a tribute to late “Black Panther” movie star Chadwick Boseman, others in African-inspired garb. This wasn’t just a movie one sits through quietly. It’s a whole raucous, happy and very Black movie thing, and I was so excited to introduce my son to it here, in my city.
I’m aware that the idea of talking back to a movie strikes some as gauche, or uncouth. I don’t care. There’s a joy in the communal experience of taking in a larger-than-life new world together, with people who were, before the lights went down, mere strangers. But now, in this darkened, sacred space, we’re all Jennifer Hudson’s backup singers or telling Daniel Kaluuya to, indeed, “Get Out” and not go home with that girl.
Ever since I saw “The Last Dragon” at the Boulevard Theatre on Greenmount Avenue in 1985, and joined the magic ritual of yelling “Sho’NUFF!” at the screen along with the movie’s villain, I was hooked. My child can be forgiven for his unfamiliarity with the loud, interactive nature of the popular African American moviegoing experience, though. We spent some time in the theaters when he was tiny, but COVID-19 hit when he was in kindergarten, and the past two and a half years of his formative cinema training happened mostly in his living room.
So when we yelled at the kids from “Zombies 3″ when they were making bad life choices, or I jumped up and danced for the entire 8 minutes and 48 seconds of the “You Can’t Stop The Beat” scene in “Hairspray,” there were no witnesses but us and his LEGOS. “Wakanda Forever” is only the second movie we’ve seen in a theater since early 2020, and the first, “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” was fun but not the hoot I was looking for.
I actually used to go to the movies every single week as a movie critic, and even after I stopped reviewing the theater remained a personal escape, sometimes with my kid, and sometimes an escape from my kid. I stopped going to theaters during COVID, and it was weird both how quickly I adjusted to life without that cherished communion with others, and how much I realized I’d missed it during “Wakanda Forever.”
There was something soulfully edifying about seeing this cinematic celebration of global Black culture in a Black city surrounded mostly by Black people. The increase of videos of so-called Karens policing Black people selling lemonade, barbecuing, birding or just trying to shop without being accused of cellphone theft underscore how monumentally exhausting it can be to just live in this skin. So any opportunity to exist comfortably, exuberantly and, yes, loudly in a group setting seems, as Paste Magazine’s Adesola Thomas called it, “a tiny revolution.”
She wrote that “when Black people choose to spend their time and money entertaining themselves, relaxing and best of all, laughing loudly, my entire being rejoices. It is a giant middle finger to the notion that quiet, incessant industriousness is the social tax Black people must pay to earn America’s approval and to ensure white comfort.”
I couldn’t agree more. Plus, Black people aren’t the only ones who seem to enjoy that experience. When I saw the original “Black Panther” on opening night, fully dressed in tribal print in a sea of it, there were three White teens sitting in front of us clapping their hearts out. One even screamed “Bucky!” during the end credit reveal that the Winter Soldier himself had been nursed back to health in Wakanda. He sounded ecstatic and free, knowing his joy would not be judged.
I am not telling anyone to yell their head off during serious movies like “Till” or “12 Years A Slave,” or to hum loudly along with the opera or scream “Don’t kill yourself, Juliet! You just met that boy!” the next time you’re at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. Read the room, and if the room is super quiet, maybe just say it to yourself.
But if, to paraphrase the Bible, two or more of you are gathered in the name of a good time, in a big theater, with the right mood and the right audience, go for it. Tell those kids not to go in that big scary house. Counsel that heroine that her boyfriend is cheating on her with his assistant. Share your thoughts on how fast that bungee cord is fraying and how you told that guy not to go bungee-jumping in the first place.
Most of all, laugh. Notice the laughter around you, feeding into the rhythm of the room and plugging into the moment. Believe me, you might still love the movie when you stream it months from now. But it will not feel the same as joining a chorus of other voices as if the characters on screen really can hear you.
And as a big believer in movie magic, who’s to say they can’t?