From the very beginning, I’ve spent most of my life finding and losing myself in the cinema. My parents felt the responsibilities of being a new older sister must be eased into after a film. Upon the arrival of my younger brother, they whisked me away to a screening of Rush Hour 2. I had always been more amicable after trips to movies, early childhood photos taken on my mother’s disposables showing a smiling Tayler with 3D glasses half on my face after what I’m sure was a transformative screening of Spy Kids. And so it was written.
I always saw the movie theater as an extension of my social circles: Places like church, or my afterschool program at the Y. I thought the cinema was similar to the spaces I dwelled in through much of my upbringing: a predominantly Black enterprise, a space cultivated for us, all thanks to Magic Johnson, who I believed for so long was the primary owner of the AMC chain because of his namesake theater on 125th Street. As at church, the audience there had a call-and-response style that allowed me to drop out of the world and into a collective experience. When you’re young, every moment feels formative, and for each of those moments there’s a film to coincide with it.
Some time ago, I was deep in the throes of both a first love and finals. It was stressful yet thrilling. Our “study sessions” doubled as a time for hand holding and his romantic gestures such as offering me Cup Noodles. I had never been so deep in lust with another person, so I was charting a path into entirely new terrain. I don’t remember who posed the idea of catching a late night film in the midst of studying, but I do remember riding shotgun as everyone else was relegated to squeezing into the backseat of his hooptie, sitting on each other’s laps. I had avoided such a fate because the man I thought I loved was the only one of us with a car on campus. I blew my hot breath on the glass and drew hearts, my subliminal messages for the driver.
We were going to see Get Out with a packed house in the middle of the night. There are chunks of the film I can’t remember, but I can recall the sounds of hollering, foot stomping, and clapping. My date spent every climactic moment squeezing my thigh. Upon the reveal that there wasn’t a cop in that police car, my whole row rose out of their seats, applauding and dapping each other up. I was screaming too, showing out just because I could. On the ride back, I listened as everyone gave their sociological assessments of the film, which felt more like an excuse to pretend the movie was somehow informing our studies than anything else. I wasn’t too interested in the criticism of the film but I liked using the sunken place jargon to describe people across my PWI (Predominantly White institution). I’d yet to realize that my relationship with movie-going would completely change towards the end of that year.
My first press screening perplexed me. I can’t recall what the film was. Probably much slower fare. It was packed, something I was used to. My weak bladder and penchant for iced coffee mean that I tend to go for an aisle seat so that I don’t have to excuse me, sorry my way to the restroom during the film. It was an older White audience with pens and notepads, diligently scribbling away while the movie played. It felt like they had their own rules and ways of self-governing that I wasn’t privy to. There were shh’s that echoed throughout the theater if someone dared to speak. Anything that felt like a distraction between the one-to-one experience between them and the film was frowned upon. The communal aspect of viewership wasn’t there. It was individualistic, calling to mind the anecdotes I’d heard about critics: That oftentimes their love of movies was cultivated in screenings in which the movie had spoken to them, reaching through the screen and whispering their future vocation in their ear. I’d been moved by films myself, but that was on the couch at home, watching them on DVD with our surround sound system. So this be-still-and-silent method of watching interested me.
And while that is a valid way to take in a film, I’d begin to toe the line between both processes of viewing. The press screening film left almost no impression on me, but I can recount beat by beat seeing Girls Trip in a theater full of Black women. It stands as one of the best times I had seeing a film. We screamed at the sight of Kofi Siriboe and Larenz Tate, both fine-ass men we all staked claims on as future ex-husbands, yelled “NAH FUCK YOU, LUKE CAGE” in response to Ryan’s husband cheating, and I heard a woman to my left decide to call it quits with her own man once the screening was over. I realized that, in some sense, you could have your cake and eat it too. Certain films could be seen in silence, but my preference for interactive viewing is essential for me as a critic. Even more so since I became a filmmaker myself.
I aim not to take cinema too seriously either, using my critical voice to champion a film that may be bad, but ultimately was such a fun time in theaters it created a sense of excitement prestige fare doesn’t always tap into. I like to give films the space to speak to me in any setting, because often what they say is better crystallized in the intimate settings of an arthouse theater or over the jeers of an audience in a major theater chain. It then becomes a decision: Should I return to the house of worship Magic Johnson built when I want to see a specific movie, or choose a quieter theater and earlier showtime to drink in the film uninterrupted? Often, I’ll do both.