A Tale of Two Movies: How Racism Is Skewing Our Perception of Violence in Cinemas

It’s often said that the universe is not without a sense of humor. If that’s true, then judging by the last week or so, that sense of humor must be a bleak one indeed. The latest evidence: the shuttering of a Baltimore movie theater on Saturday after the threat of a mass shooting during a screening of Black Panther documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. As per the Baltimore Sun, the threat was issued on Twitter in advance of the 1:15 PM screening of the film, resulting in the cancellation of that show, as well as three subsequent screenings and a Q&A with director Stanley Nelson.

The irony  of a terrorist threat (because that’s exactly what this is) being made against a screening of a documentary on black activism should be obvious: black activism often gets lumbered with the label “terrorism,” while white activism — no matter how odious — is called anything but. This is not to question the decision of the theater or the police to take the action they did; considering the US is averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015, and several of those have been in movie theaters, it’s a threat that has to be taken seriously.

Still, you can compare and contrast this whole sorry affair to the measures taken at screenings of Straight Outta Compton, the NWA biopic that saw its own studio funding “enhanced” security for theaters because…. well, because the movie was about “scary black people,” and therefore “scary black people” might turn up to the theater. As it turns out, there was precisely no violence around Straight Outta Compton. It turned out that the only connection that the single widely reported incident (a stabbing in Anaheim) had to the movie was that the perpetrator had been thrown out of the film hours earlier.

If the threat on Saturday was legitimate, then chances are that it came from a white man. If you’re going to be scared of anything at a movie theater in 2015, it shouldn’t be potential gang violence — it should be the solitary white guy next to you, toting a backpack that seems inexplicably heavy. Because the truth, of course, is that movie theater violence — and mass shootings in general — remain largely the domain of white men.

This isn’t quite as simple as it looks, though. Mass movie theater shootings are a new-ish phenomenon — while there’s definitely been violence at movie theaters in the past, the first indiscriminate mass murder at a cinema was the Aurora shooting in 2012. Every theater shooting since has been perpetrated by a white man, so it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that whoever was making the threats against Vanguard of the Revolution on Saturday was too. On the whole, though, theater shootings remain such a small sample as to make it risky to draw conclusions from them.

There are better, more meaningful statistics available for other mass shootings, however, and they make for fascinating — if profoundly depressing — reading. Most notably, these statistics seem to indicate not that whites are disproportionately likely to be mass shooters — whites make up 77% of the American population, and 79% of mass school shooters, for instance, are white.

No, the most significant statistic is this: black people are far less likely to be responsible for mass killings. Taking the school shooter example again, from the same source, we discover the following: while black citizens make up 13.2% of the US population, only 3% of school shooters are black. In other words, it’s not that whites are statistically more likely to be mass killers, it’s that blacks are statistically less likely, and to a significant extent.

When you think about it, this is a pretty startling statistic. One of the most persistent myths in American society is that of black criminality, as discussed extensively by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his recent essay on incarceration: he quotes Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, as saying, “From the 1890s through the first four decades of the 20th century, black criminality would become one of the most commonly cited and longest-lasting justifications for black inequality and mortality in the modern urban world.”

The idea of blacks being inherently predisposed to crime clearly remains deeply embedded in the American psyche, though, if the reactions to the release of Straight Outta Compton are anything to judge by. And yet, here in the real world, if we’re going to get shot randomly, en masse by anyone, the perpetrator is most likely to be one of the people that America would have us fear least: white men, those avatars of respectability and normality, the standard against which all people of color are judged.

It’s not like we needed an example like this to hammer home just how bitterly ironic this contrast between perception and reality is, but hey, we got one anyway: a film about black people garners extra security because of fears it might attract a disproportionately black audience and, by implication, potential violence, while another film about black people gets shut down completely because of a credible threat of actual violence from… probably a white man. As far as a demonstration of what America fears versus what America should fear goes, you couldn’t really do much better.