1940s-era renovated cinema: Photo by Cat Michaels
Next to books, I love the cinema. Especially classic films with iconic actors. That’s why I was so excited about spending an evening with friends at our North Carolina town’s newly renovated 1940s-era movie theater for a showing of one of my all-time fave books-to-flim, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Remember the courtroom scene that pans up to the balcony, where “Negro” townsfolk stand as Atticus leaves after Tom Robinson’s trial? When that part came on, I peered around the balcony in our theater, which was jammed this night with mostly middle-aged Caucasian suburbanites like myself.
The balcony and outside staircase that once were used to separate the races were now encased in gleaming new structures that welcomed everyone. No more separate ticket window or bathroom. Or little door in the alcove to the concession, where black townspeople knocked to buy candy.*
The movie played on: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up,” prompted the Reverend to Atticus’ young daughter in the film balcony. “Your father’s passin’.” Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch silently leaves the deserted first floor, while those relegated to the balcony solemnly stand to acknowledge the efforts of this man who fights for social justice.
Six decades slipped away. Here I was, immersed in a story about America’s struggle with race. In an actual, physical place from the segregated south. In a movie balcony where blacks were made to sit.
And just for a nano-second, I got the tiniest glimpse of what it must have been like to live in that time and place. Despite this micro-scale moment, the enormity of what it was like to live in that segregated era pinged in my brain.
Earlier in the film, Atticus talks to Scout about her disastrous encounter with an impoverished classmate on her first days at school: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” he tells her.
Last night, I climbed inside the skin of an old movie theater. My toes tingled.