It’s a very different experience sitting by yourself watching a film in the familiar environment of your living room than watching a film on a big screen in a dark theater surrounded by strangers. The experience becomes all the more distinct when those strangers do not look, behave and think exactly the same way you do. Living in a culturally diverse neighborhood, I have the great fortune to experience the latter scenario on a regular basis, and it’s changed movies for me forever. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Last year, I saw THE INSULT with an audience that comprised more Lebanese and Palestinian spectators than I ever would have guessed lived in our general vicinity. There were maybe four other “white folks,” along with myself and my partner. We were the minority, and that was a blessing. Right away I could tell by the reactions from the different cross sections in the theater that we were not all watching the same movie. There were chuckles that made no sense to me, tears in scenes that confused me, joy where I did not expect it and no small amount of tension as the movie’s sympathies shifted between the quarreling principal characters.
After the film, the lobby was alive with chatter, and though much was in languages I did not understand, I recognized the emotions and gleaned some of the perspectives of my spectating peers, allowing me a whole new window to, and thus appreciation for, the film we’d just shared.
Better still was the night I went to see GET OUT on opening weekend. This time my partner and I were among the five or so White folks of a primarily Black audience. I’m sure I would have loved the film under any circumstances—it’s that kind of film—but I doubt on my own I would have been moved to tears. And I was.
Majority White audiences who saw the film inevitably rooted for the same good guys and hated the same bad guys as majority Black audiences did. They might even have cheered as loudly as my fellow audience members at the moment of unexpected justice come movie’s end (one we see seldom, if ever, witness in real life, alas). But there was an energy, a level of empathy, pain, dread and elation that no White person in America, like myself, could possibly experience with the same degree of firsthand intimacy. And I’m by no means suggesting I did. Nevertheless, I got to be a participant observer to an event that reached beyond my own personal set of life experiences. I was part of something lived and shared in that movie theater. I listened, I watched, I felt, I learned. In the lobby after, I shared nods, smiles and brief comments with strangers who felt less like strangers after our experience together. We didn’t have the same viewing experience, but we shared the same space, and that’s not a bad start.
A cultural anthropologist’s job is to try and see past her own lived experience and gain insight into the experience of others. As such, we should all be cultural anthropologists, and the cinema’s a fabulous place to practice. Watching a wide variety of films with a diverse group of spectators helps us better understand our privilege, our ignorance, our humanity and that of others.
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