TWENTY-FOUR years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., three months after a teen-ager shot and killed Melvin Kardulis, a 17-year-old friend of mine from Hartford, Conn., I found myself sitting in a $1 movie theater in Washington, D.C. I was there to see "Juice," a film by first-time director Ernest Dickerson about growing up on the streets of Harlem.
As soon as I entered the theater, I knew it was going to be an unusual night. As I stood in the aisle waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness so I could find a seat, a young, deep voice yelled, "Sit the f--- down!" I was off to the side of the theater, and could not have been blocking anyone's view. The shout was one of simple intimidation.
The friend I had come with spotted a pair of seats in the middle of the theater, and we squeezed past a few young men to get to them. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I realized that the two of us were probably the only whites in the theater. I found myself feeling somewhat pleased because this was the audience the director had most hoped to reach with his film: young, black, urban.
Knowing it was the anniversary of Dr. King's death, I thought of the work he was doing near the end of his life. Dr. King had been struggling to raise awareness of the economic injustices that African-Americans still faced daily, despite gains in civil rights. He had also been struggling, without much success, to keep protests nonviolent.
In the last few months of his life, Dr. King grew depressed as he watched non-violent demonstrations give way to riots and polarization, while the federal government backed away from any major commitment to fighting poverty or race-based economic inequalities. Shortly before his death, he said that he had some hope -- but little optimism -- left. I wanted to compare the state of affairs in 1968 to what I would see in the movie that evening.
The film began with scenes of its four protagonists getting ready for the day, acting in front of their parents as if they were going to school, then heading out for the life of the streets. Children in the theater laughed and cheered as the heroes succeeded in ducking their responsibilities, and a few minutes later, the police. I wondered whether the director had anticipated these responses.
A big burly young man in a baseball cap who had spread himself across three seats in front of us soon interrupted these thoughts. He wanted to know if we had a pen. We said no.
"Thanks for nothin'," he said. He slapped a friend on the arm; the friend moved a few seats to a woman nearby and asked her for a pen. She said she didn't have one. The friend took the news back to the guy in the baseball cap.
He turned to four other guys sitting behind him and asked them for something, which one of them soon supplied. For the next few minutes, my attention was divided. On the screen, four young men skirted the edges of the law on the streets of New York. In the seat in front of me, the guy in the baseball cap laid out and snorted several lines of cocaine -- through a pen, I think.
During the rest of the movie, no one in the audience broke the law, but reactions to the film grew progressively more disturbing. Many laughed at a chubby boy who cried after one of his best friends was shot through the heart. More laughed when the killer, feeling secure thanks to the pistol in his boot, taunted the leader of a local gang. "Waste him," some in the theater said when a fight broke on film.
For me, though, the most frightening audience reaction came during the scene when the killer, Bishop, confronted a former friend in the hallway of their high school. Rejected by his old buddy, Bishop says, "I don't give a f---. I don't give a f--- about
Steele, I don't give a f--- about you. S---, I don't give a f--- about myself."
Just as I was wondering whether the screenwriter had been too obvious in linking murder to lack of self-esteem, the big guy in the baseball cap raised both his arms in the air.
"I don't give a f--- about me, either," he said.
For him, as for the killer in the film, the statement meant power and possibilities. If his life did not matter to him, he could do anything. In a society that offers many of its members too few legitimate routes to money, prestige or influence -- a society that also makes handguns and drugs easily available -- this dangerous path to power seems to grow in appeal daily.
When the film ended, the crowd moved out of the theater quickly. One of the guys from the end of our row threw a large cup across the theater, spattering people with ice and narrowly missing hitting someone in the head.
I wondered how Dr. King would have felt -- and what he might have said -- had he lived to sit in that theater. I wondered what my murdered friend, a soft-spoken, thoughtful person who always tried to steer clear of confrontations, might have said. And I wished there'd been more I could have said or done as I headed out into the cold city night.
Andrew W. Fleischmann is executive assistant to the Connecticut state comptroller.