The Film Society of Lincoln Center announced it changed its name to Film at Lincoln Center ahead of its 50th anniversary celebration, a move that indicated the desire to emphasize the inclusivity of its programming. The annual Chaplin Gala — which this year honored the institution’s history rather than a specific talent — included many warm and entertaining speeches from movie buffs across multiple generations, from Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan to John Waters, Tilda Swinton, and Martin Scorsese. But one presenter struck a sobering note.
“Mudbound” director Dee Rees delivered a searing indictment of the discrimination faced by African American moviegoers around the country, exploring the history of such experiences in her own family. In doing so, she provided an eye-opening explanation of the way the industry has suppressed black audiences and filmmakers alike.
“This is a vision test,” she said, repeating the line several times throughout her speech. “We must be vigilant and quick to correct the tendency toward myopia when it comes to finding proof of a filmmaker and what is a film.”
Rees provided examples from four different time periods, beginning in 1946. “My grandparents were spirited 21-year-olds,” she said. “They were in love. ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ was all the rage. But for them, going to a show at the local theater was fraught with racist insults. So while audiences were swooning over Bogart, or falling in love with Lauren Bacall, my grandparents had one eye on the silver screen and one eye on the exit door.”
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She moved on to 1961. “Nashville, Tennessee, when my own father was 12 years old,” she said. “There was ‘West Side Story,’ ‘La Dolce Vita,’ ‘The Hustler.’ My dad was not allowed to watch those films with the rest of the patrons. He and his friends were relegated to the balconies with crushed popcorn and spilled soda, because the theater owners didn’t clean so well on the colored side.”
The bottom line, Rees argued, was the romantic notions of moviegoing in America were largely tied to white experiences. “So if we open our peripheral vision, we see that the golden age of cinema was not Lauren Bacall,” she said. “We see that the magic of the silver screen was not magic for all. This is a vision test.”
She then shifted to her days as a college movie buff in the late nineties, “lest we mistake this as a historical folly.” During that time, she encountered a subtler problem. “Discriminatory theatrical practices continued in the form of deceptive ticket sales,” she said. “You’d go and pay for a ticket to see ‘Dead Presidents,’ and you’d get a ticket that says ‘drama’ instead. You’d ask to go see ‘Rosewood’ and you’d be told, we’re sorry, we’re all sold out. You’d buy a ticket to another movie at the same time and see that the supposedly sold-out theater was half empty. They would depress box office numbers for black-cast films, which fueled the falsehood that blacks films don’t sell.”
Rees also recalled seeing “Straight Outta Compton” with her wife in 2015 at a local multiplex upstate. The theater had hired additional security. “My wife and I were randomly selected for a bag check even though the white patrons ahead of us were going to see the same movie,” she said. “So the white patrons seemed safe and the black patrons seemed not safe.” She found other contemporary issues that prevented multiplexes from welcoming a diverse crowd. “No, there are no ‘whites-only’ signs, but there are sometimes other signs,” she said, “like ‘no hoodies,’ ‘no baseball caps,’ ‘no padded jeans.’ Selectively enforced policies, of course, depending on whose head the baseball cap rests.”
Rees closed by reminding audiences that the sugarcoating of exhibition history continued to have an impact on the present. “Today, what seems like a highbrow aesthetic argument about how we view films is actually a limited blindness to social context, a willfully focused nostalgia,” she said. She praised Film at Lincoln Center, where her sophomore feature “Pariah” showed at New Directors/New Films, and “Mudbound” screened at the New York Film Festival in 2017. “Audience connections would not possible without the clear-sighted invention of the Film Society of Lincoln Center for myself and other filmmakers,” she said, calling it “an institution that shows us the power of multiple perspectives.”