As the theater darkened and the movie screen came alive with "The Color Purple," I knew almost instantly that I was going to have a problem. I had already written, before seeing the movie, that I didn't like Alice Walker's story. Now here I was fighting to hold back tears.
With notebook in my lap and felt tip pen in a sweating palm, I had planned to take a clinical approach. There was no way I was going to let Steven Spielberg make me cry, and easily rationalized that he saw Mister as merely a two-legged "Jaws." When the camera panned on Whoopi Goldberg wiggling her fingers like the critter creature had done in "ET," I thought that I must have been psychic to have already written about such a comparison.
But, frankly folks, keeping my perspective was hard. Watching the scene where the two sisters desperately cling to each other as Mister tries to tear them apart made me sad.
What's this all about? I turned to the woman seated next to me for an explanation but she couldn't even talk for trying to wipe the tears from her eyes.
When the theater lit up with the next daytime scene, I scanned the faces of theater patrons around me. Never in my moviegoing experience have I seen whole rows of black women, teens to elderly, with rivulets of rouge-stained tears streaming down their faces one moment and eyes bright with laughter the next.
I was prepared to deal with Spielberg, and even tune out Quincy Jones' twang-on-the-heart-strings music. But it was the audience that shook me up. Here we were watching the same screen, but seeing something completely different.
Many of those who had criticized me for writing about the movie before seeing it had offered clues for understanding what was going on: It's not about black men, some said, it's about the black woman's triumph over adversity. It's one black woman's story -- not about all blacks, said others. Besides, came many a passionate cry, it's true.
Many black men felt the same way. My own cousin, Earl Milloy, a videotape editor, couldn't understand my objections. "You have to face the truth, Cuz: there are some trifling black men out here," he said.
Indeed, there are -- and trifling white men, too. But for every "Burning Bed" movie, there are 10 "Back to the Futures."
To me, it was almost as if the media moguls had said, hey, they are too happy with Bill Cosby; let's make their day with Mister.
That is the psychology I brought to the theater, and it clearly was not shared by those with whom I sat. So rather than watching the movie, I ended up paying attention to the moviegoers.
Every now and then, an elderly woman in front and to the right of me would see something that nobody else saw and just break out laughing. And tears would roll down her face sometimes, it seemed, for no reason at all.
The younger women laughed a kind of laugh that I don't hear that much, a knowing kind of smirk, when Celie was called "ugly," and they groaned uncomfortably when she made love to another woman, clapped when Mister's father drank water with Celie's spit mixed in and quietly urged, "Do it," as Celie contemplated cutting Mister's throat.
Everytime Mister beat Celie, one woman would grab the arm of her chair as if it were a roller-coaster car. Heads in the theater could be seen snapping back, as if Mister had reached out and slapped them, too, and some responded with "ouches" and "ooohs."
By the time Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) was released from prison and came home all swollen and beaten with that dead eye, I was emotionally drained. Not because of the pain on the screen, but because of that which had been revealed around me.
Then Sofia's daughter came outside to greet her, but because the girl had not seen her mother in such a long time, she could not remember her. And when the little girl said ever so politely, "Nice to meet you, ma'am," I was a goner.
I had been blindsided by a supporting actress who herself had been supported by a theater filled with emotional black women. To which I can only say, "Touche', sisters."
Now that it's over, I am most anxious to agree with those who caution that it's only a movie. But no one can tell me that it's not about black men, and I can only hope that Hollywood will soon come up with a bunch of them more suitable for screening.