In the midst of full-out yelling at the older gentleman in the orange puffy coat in the lobby of the Evanston movie theatre, the thought flashed through my brain: I guess this is me now. I am a person who engages in screaming matches with strangers inside respected places of business. In the moment, I couldn’t tell if I was proud of or disgusted with myself, and over a week later, I still can’t.
My boyfriend and I went to see the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any James Baldwin, but I wanted to learn about him and his life and we’d heard the documentary was excellent. We made the trek up to Evanston because 1. the only theaters still playing it were either downtown (fuck that parking sitch) or in Evanston and 2. we’d recently learned if you have a SAG-AFTRA card you get 2 tickets for $FREE.99 any-got-dang-time.
When the previews had ended and the actual movie began, 2 college-age women in the row behind us began to whisper. I wasn’t that bothered by it, but my boyfriend LOVES movies (he’s a filmmaker, going to movies are church to him), and he did the head turn universally acknowledged as “will you kindly shut the fuck up I’m trying to concentrate on the movie and not your opinion of/questions about it.” They kept whispering, and then he did the dreaded shush.
In general, I hate the shush. Always have. It makes panic rise in my chest and my breath catch in my throat. I know it’s faster than turning to someone and having a respectful tete a tete, but there’s something about that shushing noise that just feels so kindergarten teacher controlling a room full of jabbering kids. It feels…condescending. Insulting. Also, my fight or flight instinct is super sensitive, and I always feel like the shush is 2 wrong moves away from getting called a fat/ugly/dumb/hysterical bitch or being punched or shot (I recognize what I just said may seem extreme, but when you are a woman, you are trained to believe violence is a very real consequence in confrontation, ’cause guess what, for many women it is. Isn’t this blog hilarious?).
The women continued to whisper for another few seconds, and then like decent people, they stopped and watched the movie.
What did not stop, for the entirety of the movie, was the running commentary by two middle-aged men a little down the row from us. They did not whisper. They talked with abandon, their bass-y voices vibrating throughout the theatre.
My boyfriend did the head turn. I did the head turn. My boyfriend shushed them. They were undeterred.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is a spectacular film and James Baldwin is a superhero of calm yet impassioned expression in the face of wildly ignorant adversity. I adored the film, but as the lights came up at the end, I was pissed. These ballsacks knew they were disturbing fellow patrons, they just didn’t care.
We saw one of the men leave the theatre (let’s call him Dipshit) while the other one gathered his things (let’s call him Dumbfuck). Once outside the theatre doors and in the hallway, my boyfriend walked up to Dipshit and said, “Sir, I hope the next time you go see a movie, you’re more respectful and don’t talk the way you did tonight. You’re not in your living room.”
“What are you talking about?” said Dipshit. “I didn’t do anything.”
Now normally, I would have begged my boyfriend not to say a word to the obviously unstable and entitled man because 1. I doubt it would make any difference 2. my previously mentioned fear of being punched or shot. But this time felt different. This was not a horror film, where part of the fun is being vocal with the rest of the audience. This was a documentary about a man’s life work of battling racism while watching his friends literally be murdered for their activism. This deserved some respect.
Also, Dipshit and Dumbfuck were white. This matters when watching a film about a black man having to assert his voice again and again in a world that systematically tried to talk over/silence him. If you’re a white person watching a film about James Baldwin, MAYBE SHUT YOUR MOUTH FOR 70 MINUTES AND JUST LISTEN FOR A CHANGE.
“You talked through the entire movie,” I said.
“Oh please. We’re allowed to laugh in a movie theatre,” said Dipshit.
“You weren’t just laughing, you were full out talking the whole time. Next time, just watch it at home where you can be as loud as you want.” I could hear myself getting louder.
The next minute and a half is an emotion-enduced blur, but here are snippets of what I remember:
Dipshit says something really patronizing and rude and starts to walk away.
Awesome boyfriend: “Sir, I came to listen to James Baldwin, not you.” Damn, he’s a good one! That was a salient point!
Dipshit yelling from down the hall: “You have no idea what you’re talking about, and you obviously don’t understand what you just watched!”
Me yelling: “You obviously don’t understand privilege!”
“You obviously don’t understand-” He said something else here, but I don’t remember because all I was thinking was bawhajusscameoutmyhole??
“Privilege” doesn’t even make sense there! The word I was looking for was entitlement! GAH why couldn’t I be impassioned and have facility with language instead of just yelling the first political buzz word I could find?? AND I’m wearing a winter hat with a big fuzzy pompom sticking out the top and it’s hard to be taken seriously with a huge pompom on your head! BAHHHHHHHHHH.
Dipshit then starts walking toward us really quickly and I think, “This is it. This is where my fears come true and he punches my boyfriend and calls me a pompom-bitch-whore.
“Why are you walking really aggressively toward us, sir? What are you going to do?” It’s the most clearheaded thing I said all night.
Dipshit turns and walks away, and from down the other end of the hall a voice says, “Hey, don’t get arrested.” It was a young black man passing us on the way to the bathroom. It seemed like he meant it.
As a woman, my learned fear of standing up for myself is derision and/or violence. A black man’s learned fear is being arrested for doing nothing wrong (along with derision, violence, being shot by police, again isn’t this blog a laugh riot?). That orange-puffy-coated-middle-aged-white-man feared nothing.
My boyfriend and I turned to leave and saw the two college-age women who had been sitting behind us. We hadn’t noticed that they had stopped to watch incident. As we started to walk away, they walked next to us.
“We were thinking the exact same thing the whole time,” one of them said. “Yeah, good on y’all for saying something to him,” said the other.
It felt nice for them to say that, but I didn’t feel good. In the heat of the argument, I wasn’t able to say what I meant. I didn’t have facility with language under duress. I felt clumsy and inarticulate, and I had shown my own privilege by never once fearing that I would be arrested for yelling at someone in a movie theatre. My fears are different because I’m white.
My favorite part of “I Am Not Your Negro” is a clip of James Baldwin on a talkshow. A white, old-ish Yale professor is also a guest and basically tells Baldwin, “I don’t know why you have to make it about race all the time. It’s not about race. It’s about what we have in common. I have more in common with a black man who is an academic than a white uneducated man. You shouldn’t be so focused on race.”
Baldwin listens. He looks the man in the eyes. Then he takes a drag of his cigarette and calmly yet passionately eviscerates the Yale professor’s painfully ignorant argument. I’m paraphrasing, but Baldwin explains that until he and other black people are no longer afraid for their lives when they walk out of their homes and on to the streets, until black people aren’t concerned for their physical safety just by existing in public places, the races are not having similar experiences. That he was only able to become a writer because he went to Paris, a place that allowed him the mental energy to focus on something other than the daily act of survival. That to deny this chief difference is to deny reality. Baldwin was clear-headed and unapologetic. He fuckin schooled that guy, and he didn’t yell once.
I doubt I’ll ever have that kind of eloquence under fire, but I want to get better. To take a lesson from Baldwin, look Dipshits in the eye, take a drag on my imaginary cig, and find the words to truly mean what I say. Maybe it just takes practice.
*If you encounter an obvious Dipshit or Dumbfuck in an orange puffy coat in Evanston (oh man, I just realized how many people probably fit that description), tell them how rude they were during “I Am Not Your Negro.” Maybe, collectively, we can haunt them with their own bad behavior forever.