What's behind the Black-on-Black violence at movie theaters

October 1991
Ebony
By Aldore Collier

IT began with the release of the much-talked-about film, New Jack City. Without warning or anticipation, violence-gang shootouts, stabbings, fights-erupted at theaters showing the film. Before the smoke cleared, on-screen and offscreen, one person had been killed in Brooklyn, rival gangs had exchanged gunfire in downtown Chicago and some 20 people had been arrested at a gang brawl in Las Vegas.

The uproar over this new phenomenon was scarcely over when a string of violent episodes erupted, like firecrackers, at theaters showing John Singleton's anti-gang movie, Boyz N The Hood. This time violence erupted in 12 states with two fatalities and more than 30 injuries. In the Los Angeles area alone, 11 movie patrons were wounded in what was described as "Wild West gunfire."

This has alarmed a number of people, most notably John Singleton, the 23-year-old director whose movie, Boyz N The Hood, was greeted by a whirlwind of gang violence. "The cause of all this violence," he says, "is bad parenting and a society that places more emphasis on Black people hating themselves so they can't respect each other. "

The problem, Singleton says, is not Black movies but Black families. "Parents," he says, "don't teach their kids. These kids are committing acts of violence because they're in search of their manhood. They're primarily raised by women. It is my belief that a woman cannot teach a young boy how to be a man. He needs a man for that. That's one of the reasons we have so many problems today. Brothers run out on these women and don't take care of their responsibility. What I'm trying to say is that we have to stop that."

It should also be pointed out that there have been scattered-and largely unreported-instances of violence at the showing of some of the White-oriented gangster movies. Some observers have suggested that racism is at the bottom of the widespread media focus on Black violence at Black-oriented gangster movies.

A number of critics have said that it is unfortunate that gang violence marred Singleton's film debut. For his film focuses on the adolescent years of three Black youths in South Los Angeles. One is raised by his father: the other two are raised by- a single mother. The father teaches his son pride and respect; the other two are booby traps ready to explode. One has a wife and a child; his brother is a gang member who has been in and out of reform schools. The film's message is that Black people, especially Black youths, "have to place more emphasis on Black life first and foremost."

Psychiatrist Carl Bell, M.D., who has lectured widely on Black-on-Black violence, says, "I can't imagine anyone who saw Boyz N The Hood going out after seeing the movie and committing violence because it was such a strong anti-violence film. if rival gangs went to see 101 Dalmations and started making gang signs, there might very well be violence. Whenever you have people grouped together in a public gathering like a festival or a movie where the turf is not staked out, you run the risk of having two rival groups in the same general area and an increased potential for violence." Dr. Bell says movies don't cause violence. It's family violence ... that has the most influence in terms of causing kids to fight," he says. "If you want to stop violence, stop family violence. The other strong variable is poverty."

Robert Townsend, who directed and acted in The Five Heartbeats, which opened without incident earlier this year, says that one problem is that violent images attract violent crowds, adding; "I think when you have a lot of shooting in your promotional material and the publicity shows a lot of guns and violence, people respond to that. And I think some younger people want to see shoot'em ups. Anytime you talk about gangs, it's going to bring out that clement." Townsend adds:

"Some people think the best way to get people into theaters is to show violence. Sometimes different gangs come to theaters because they want to see movies on the first night, and two gangs get together and fight. When young people who want to be gang-bangers see violence, somebody shooting who looks like them, all of those kids are going to come out to see that film.

Harvard psychiatrist Alvin F Poussaint, M. D., is another expert who believes that part of the problem is the way the movies have been marketed. "One reason for the violence, he says, "is that the movies have been marketed as gang-type movies, particularly initially, like in 'Coming Attractions,' which announce that this is going to be a shoot-'em-up movie.

"The films have been marketed like that because they want to attract young Black males. So when the movies open, they pull in inner-city Black kids, including some gang types. So the chances that there'll be violence are very high. "

Mark Gill, vice president of publicity for Columbia Pictures, defends the promotional material, saying: "What we've been selling is a reality-based movie, and an important one. The ad campaign changes the way all campaigns change ... The minute you get critics' quotes that you can use, you add those in."

Director Singleton believes the provocative promotional material is one reason Boyz pulled in an incredible $22 million in less than two weeks. The promotional material, he says, "helped people to come to the theaters. If we had shown all the poetic parts, people would have said I don't want to see that.' So we did what we had to do to get people in the theaters. "

Dr. Bell and others say there is a built-in dilemma in this approach. "The issue of violence or drug use is a double-edged sword," he says. "You might stir some stuff up if you address it. I'd rather see it addressed than not, especially with the Boyz N The Hood and Straight Out of Brooklyn's treatments ... But I get concerned that young filmmakers may not be sophisticated enough about the subliminal messages they are sending to understand what types of messages they are reinforcing. "

The Columbia Pictures vice president says the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Some people say, for example, that the presence of rap artists in movies-Ice Cube in Boyz and Ice T in New Jack City-contributed to the violence. Gill disagrees. "You can look at a variety of movies that have had incidents over the years, " he says. " It goes back to The Godfather III. To say that only one kind of film will attract or will have the possibility of having violence associated with it is to misdate it considerably. And this goes back to the 1950s when various movies had problems. And God knows, rap was not around then. Random violence existed in Los Angeles and all over the country for a long time before these movies opened and, sadly, seems likely to continue."

Dr. Poussaint feels that the atmosphere of some modern movie theaters contributes to the violence. "There is something," he says, "about the culture of the movies, where people no longer respect each other, where they are loud and provocative. I think it's a symptom of all the problems [of Blacks], especially that a lot of Blacks see violence as a way you deal with things and that most of these people are angry all the time-about their life condition and the way they've been treated-and all you need is a trigger. "

Columbia offered increased security to all theaters showing Boyz, and there were no reports of violence after the opening weekend. Some theaters which had initially refused to show the movie picked it up in the second week.

Warrington Hudlin, one of the producers of the successful film House Party (which featured rappers Kid N Play with no incidents) agrees with Singleton that violence is a societal problem. He, too, is angered that Black films are being singled out and associated with urban violence.

"Movies are being blamed for the stresses and strains of modern urban life for young Black people," he says, "People should pay more attention to the conditions we live under rather than the movies."

Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP, makes a similar point. "It must be noted, "she says, "that the media play a role in the 'hype factor.'

Their coverage of violence and the subsequent milking of the story often result in more violence ... Reporters in ticket lines with cameras anticipating conflict may cause just that. "

There has been some concern that movie owners will stop showing Black-oriented films because of fear of violence. Filmmakers Townsend and Hudlin dismiss that possibility, saying that Hollywood pays more attention to box-office figures than homicide figures. "The only thing they are concerned about in Hollywood is how much a film makes", Townsend says.

And the numbers have been impressive. New Jack City pulled in more than $49 million, Spike Lee's Jungle Fever has earned more than $30 million and, Boyz N The Hood has earned more money per screen than Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator 2.

"We are making money and paying our own way for admittance into the very private club called Hollywood, Hudlin says. "Some people get very nervous and don't want to see us here.

The ultimate solution, Hudlin and others say, is a broad-based attack on the real-life, problems that create the real violence that Hollywood portrays. "It's not about movies," Evers-Mainey of the NAACP says. "We have to deal with such problems as unemployment, drugs, racism and peer pressure.... We have to advance all our people.

Groups like the NAACP have to be in the community more, dealing with the people, reaching out to youths. We have to go back and teach our history. These young people don't know that we come from a strong people. We have to teach them that. The community has to be the extended family again.

The solution, in other words, is responsible action by "boyz and girlz" and men and women in the Hood and outside the Hood.