This past weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the last time I saw a film in a movie theater. While I, like other film lovers who’ve written many a thoughtful pandemic thinkpiece about the movies, miss galaxy-themed carpet; glowing marquees; the sounds of stuttering popcorn machines and ripping tickets; the feeling when planting my feet on inclined, syrupy theater floors; the buzzing chatter in between trailers and the chorus of quiet when the lights finally go down, I recently realized what I miss most about the movies: The laughter of Black strangers. This truth settled somewhere deep inside of me after watching the imperfect but undoubtedly fun Coming 2 America.
Coming to America as a franchise focuses on characters across the Black diaspora. In the original film, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) from the fictional African nation of Zamunda travels to Queens, NY and for the first time is immersed in Black American culture—ultimately marrying the dazzling Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley). Coming to America is deservedly beloved because it narratively tethers Black Americans and Black Africans in this vibrant, interconnected comedic space. Coming 2 America arrives 33 years after the original and during a social moment in which Black diasporic culture is increasingly embraced. It should’ve been a moment. Yet due to the nature of the pandemic, experiencing the film alongside other Black audience members was not an option. Watching this alone on my laptop was a necessary sacrifice, reminding me of the life-giving power I find in the Black cinematic cultural events and moments of communal Black leisure that I look forward to experiencing in the future.
For some, Black laughter—not unlike Black joy or rest—is elevated as this revelatory, socially legible expression of resistance. That may sound unnecessarily philosophical or lofty because Black people have experienced moments of levity since the dawn of time. But contextualizing the resonance of these moments of levity is a useful way of honoring how Black expressions of pleasure have been historically received. Let us normalize glorious moments of Black laughter and marvel at the undergirding social and political power that laughter possesses, considering the historied villainization of Black recreation in the United States.
America has a legacy of criminalizing Black leisure. After the Civil War, Black Codes—a series of social strictures that applied to formerly enslaved African-Americans—were legally codified in the U.S, especially in Southern states. The vagrancy laws which were a part of these codes criminalized Black unemployment and made Black people vulnerable to arrest if they were not in some sort of work contract with a white employer, or were perceived as experiencing an extensive period of group leisure. Although Black Codes and the Jim Crow Laws which succeeded them no longer explicitly exist, the intention behind these laws still lurks in contemporary American society.
Remember Permit Patty, the white woman who called the police on a Black 8-year-old for selling water? Or the Central Park incident with the Black birder? Or the Black student at Yale who had the police called on her for napping in her dorm? There’s a constellation of stories like these in which Black people who play, sleep, explore, express their self-determination or seek out entertainment are deemed threats to our white supremacist capitalist society. When Blackness is generationally positioned as inherently illegitimate, ceaseless work can be seen as the sole route to redemption. So rest, play, laughter—these quotidian human things look a lot like acts of resistance when exercised by Black people. Even the notion of “Black excellence” reiterates the way America seduces its residents into thinking that Black people are worthy of admiration only when they overachieve. Hustle culture and making moves in silence are these rarefied fixing agents for Blackness, which is falsely positioned as a crude signifier of danger that necessitates surveillance and refinement through ceaseless productivity.
These notions and racist stereotypes about leisurely Black people being lazy can not be separated from the history of vagrancy laws. They also cannot be separated from the ways Black people are pressured to comport themselves in movie theaters. Think about the stereotypes which suggest that Black theatergoers are too loud and disruptive. Forms of enthusiastic Black expression and engagement with entertainment rupture demands that Black people take up minimal sensory space when experiencing leisure at all. White expectations of “proper” protocol reinforce this idea that, for Black people to act appropriately in spaces of leisure, they can be seen but must not be heard. Although laughter is a simple, human expression, Black people have long had their ability to be freely human threatened and suppressed. That is why I love seeing Black people at movie theaters, these emporiums of entertainment. Yes, it is a simple Saturday pastime. But there is deep history behind the permission Black people give themselves to access play, something Black people will always be self-evidently eligible and worthy of.
I wanted to see Coming 2 America with a bunch of other Black people not only because it was a salient cultural moment, but because I consider every moment of communally experienced Black amusement to be a tiny revolution. When Black people choose to spend their time and money entertaining themselves, relaxing and best of all, laughing loudly, my entire being rejoices. It is a giant middle finger to the notion that quiet, incessant industriousness is the social tax Black people must pay to earn America’s approval and to ensure white comfort.
Aside from the safety of people worldwide and the freedom to sneeze in a grocery aisle without instigating two weeks of epidemiological panic for fellow shoppers, I am most excited to see a movie at North Dekalb AMC 16 again. To walk through the rusty white double Decatur doors that lead to what is sometimes affectionately called murder hallway; to see the marquee lights; to plant my feet on that sticky floor and for the lights to go down. It truly doesn’t matter if the movie I watch ends up being that good, because my favorite part about this daydream is not the film itself—it’s looking over in the dark and watching the glow of the screen bounce off of all of these attentive, whispering, chuckling Black bodies and luxuriating in the relief—and accessibility—of Black play once again.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna.