“Excuse me that was my seat,” he leaned on the rail and pointed beneath her legs, “I put my bag under it.” I looked at them as the silence in the air became charged with something ugly.
“Then you lost your seat,” she announced.
“Are you serious,” he pushed back, his voice jittery. In the first split second of a fight, who doesn’t size the enemy up, read how far they’ll go, measure the oscillation of fear and anger in the body? I glanced and saw he was skinny, Black and gay. His voice was airy. She heard it to; she knew the seat was hers.
In her calculation, his skinny gayness outweighed his blackness. If it was me or my burly corn-rowed friends, one of whom has gold teeth, you best believe she would’ve moved with a whispery, “Sorry”. It’s how the hierarchy of terror works in New York; we pivot around each other’s stereotypes. If my crew had taken her seat but then a squad of crazy Russians rolled up and wanted them, we would have said, “Sorry” and moved to. No one wants to die over a seat, unless you’re from Brownsville. They’ll die over anything.
I studied them from the corner of my eye. This is Brooklyn. And this is the UA Court Street Stadium. It was here that I saw two mothers hurl popcorn, curse and yank out tuft after tuft of each other’s hair weaves, they wrestled on the floor cheered on by the crowd. And yes, it was over a seat.
“I can’t believe you’re arguing with me about this,” Mr. Skinny Jeans half-pleaded, half demanded.
“Believe it,” she spoke like a hammer, hitting each syllable like a nail, “The seat is yours if you’re in it. If not, it’s up for grabs.”
“Wow, it’s like that,” he lunged under her legs and snatched his bag, “Better watch yourself missy.”
He stomped off, climbed the stairs to the dark upper rows. I relaxed and smiled. Working-class Brooklyn comes to the UA to see entertainment and inevitably become it. The “Keep it Real” folks pack the rows to watch sex joke-filled comedies or explosive superhero sequels. They shout back at the actors. They laugh big. But when the lead hero shoots his weapon, I look at the audience in the strobe light of machine gun fire. It’s like they are a thousand blank pieces of paper being written on by the same light.
And I come here specifically for movies on race. When Red Tails, a George Lucas film about the Tuskegee pilots came out, I heard their groans at the bad acting. When Fruitvale Station lit up the screen, I felt the despair turn in our chests like giant screws. Here is where the Brooklyn Diaspora sees Hollywood's myths of race and the X-Men film series are a part of that mythology. The mutants are a stand in for ethnic minorities. Professor X is the peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. of Homo Superior. Magneto the icy eyed Malcolm X.
When X-Men: Days of Future Past flickered on screen, I wondered how would we read this new " race" film that used a comic book aesthetic to talk about politics? The first scene was of a dark, battered war-torn world. Instantly the strange semi-hypnosis of film pulled us in. A movie is a bright immersive world that engulfs us until we dissolve into the story. In this one, mutants strode from fight to fight, at stake was the future itself.
The plot is that Mystique, a dark blue mutant (played with resigned feistiness by Jennifer Lawrence) killed in 1973 a man named Bolivar Trask (a Shakespearean Peter Dinklange) but was then taken hostage and experimented on. Her mutant ability to mimic others was extracted and mass produced into fleets of Sentinel robots, who flew to the far corners of the Earth to hunt down and kill mutants. But in a tragic blowback, since humanity itself was evolving to a mutant species, nearly everyone had a recessive mutant gene and became targets. In the scenes of the future, a dark mass of humbled people shuffled in cages to their extermination under the metallic eyes of the Sentinels.
The surface conflict driving the plot was the X-Men trying to stop her from killing Trask. The deeper one was the struggle of an oppressed minority, torn between two political visions. One of them being integration and hopeful reconciliation with the majority, the other, a rage fueled separatism and a vengeance that rips the world apart.
I watched the movie, at times awed by the special effects, at times bored but there was a part of me that was but a drop in the larger emotional waves of the audience. Inside the cavernous theater hall, we poured ourselves into the film like tides rolling in, then receding, then back in again as the narrative climbed fight after fight to climax. Would she kill? Would hope win out over rage?
The film revolves around time travel and the parallel plot lines of the future and past. It was then inevitable that two versions of the same character meet. “We need you to hope again,” the older Professor X (a stately Patrick Stewart) consoled his younger version (a shaggy James McAvoy). He speaks from the end of the war to who he was decades ago, a broken young man who wants to retreat from the world. Living in the 70’s the youthful professor takes a drug that numbs his telepathic powers to stop feeling everyone’s pain. He yells no, yells that he can’t endure it until the older one tells him that embracing their pain will make him more powerful than he’s ever known.
The audience hushed and focused on his words. It was the liberal money shot. It was the idea of redemptive suffering that we inherited from the Civil Rights Movement and here was an aged, British actor who many of us grew up with in film and TV, speaking the idea of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Soul Force. In the back of my mind flashed the black and white image of men on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, pointing to the echo of a gunshot as King lay on the ground, blood spurting from his neck like a garden hose.
Redemptive suffering – I doubt many were that conscious of the allegory but it’s the history that resonated in us. I felt everyone making a connection with the film because it was at a moment of crisis that tested the characters morality and made it clear for us. And maybe why the X-Men film series are one of the few where the audiences are so diverse. Nerds, comic book fans, thugs, Buppies, interracial date night couples and slumming intellectuals. We’re all here.
After that scene the film ground on to the last climax with Mystique aiming a gun at Trask, her hand trembling with rage. He killed so many of her friends, other mutants, to create his Sentinels. Pinned by rubble, Professor X can control her mind but instead projects his image in front of her and gives her the freedom to choose. Kill or forgive.
Tears streaming, she aims for his head, knowing that to kill Trask would also kill her ability to feel human again. The gun wobbles in her hand, she drops it and leaves. In the “future”, the war disappears, the genocide, the mountains of skulls, the people in cages under the silhouettes of Sentinels, vanish.
The credits rolled up the screen but people stayed, gossiping about the effects, wondering what new X-Men movie was next to be made. I was like what the fuck. Does anyone see the message or is it just a computer generated fireworks display?
“Excuse me,” a man said.
I turned and saw Mr. Skinny Jeans leaning over the rail, staring at Missy who took his seat. Oh shit, it was about to be on.
“I wanted to apologize for coming at you like that,” he scratched his cheek nervously, “It’s just a seat and I am sorry for yelling at you.”
A moment went by and the air became charged with something beautiful.
“I apologize,” she said her voice tight but opening, “It probably would’ve been fun if you sat next to me.”
“Oh shit,” he laughed and she joined him. He fanned his hands near his face, “It’s getting real Obama-like in here.” They laughed even harder.