Aurora, Colorado is now known around the world after the massacre that took place at a midnight premiere screening of Dark Knight Rises this morning. James Egan Holmes, age 24, dressed in protective gear from ballistic helmet to bulletproof vest, groin and throat protectors—and armed with not one or even two but four firearms—released tear gas on a moviegoing audience and proceeded to open fire on them as the film played. Currently, 58 injuries and 12 fatalities have been reported. Among the victims are a six year-old child and a three month old infant.
I join the world in its shock, and the nation in its collective grief. My condolences go out to all affected by this horrific mass killing. As a parent and avid filmgoer myself, I cannot imagine finally getting out for an evening with my family or friends—only to lose a loved one in such a heinous, senseless manner. This is domestic terror: civilians gunned down as they take in a new movie by a maniac wielding combat artillery, forever traumatizing an American pastime.
The fallout will continue to unfold along with the investigation into Holmes and the events of this morning. A bomb squad is trying to disarm the shooter’s apartment, which he rigged with explosives. Across the ocean, Paris has canceled their premiere. Security will be heightened at New York City theaters; no word yet on whether other cities will follow suit. So far, there is no talk of pulling the film from theaters or lowering the number of screens on which it is shown, nor should there be. I’m sure the last thing Warner Bros. imagined (or wants) is this type of mayhem marring their opening weekend. While it may be good for box office, violence is always bad for real-life business.
I can’t help but think back to the premiere of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, a gritty, semi-autobiographical film about the rapper’s own survival of multiple gunshots. When violence broke out at screenings of this “urban film”, not only were the suspects not apprehended; the film was pulled from theaters. The victims went largely unacknowledged, the prevailing thought being that it’s the order of the day for movies like his.
For example, check out what happened in Pittsburgh:
And even though it ultimately did well at the box office, Get Rich was punished for the criminal acts of audience members, and even blamed for inciting them.
As a member of the entertainment community and a filmmaker, I do not advocate placing the blame on art when tragedy strikes. Art imitates life, and illuminates truth. That said, I believe that societal bias and prejudice tilt the scales out of balance and negatively impact art that may reflect images and lives considered outside the mainstream.
Violence is as central to Dark Knight Rises as it is to Get Rich or Die Tryin’. One could even argue that Get Rich advocates getting away from violence, given Jackson’s character use of music to heal trauma and lead a better life. The Dark Knight fights violence with more violence to vanquish Gotham’s terrorist.
And while Holmes gassed his victims and wore a gas mask like Batman’s nemesis, I have yet to hear any reports linking Holmes’ method to the film. So why should films about everyday people, people on the margins of society, or people of lesser means grappling with violence have the albatross of inspiring violence hung upon them?
Violence at the movies is nothing new, but it’s growing. Three people died as a result of gang violence after The Warriors came out in 1979. In the ‘90s, Oscar®-nominated film Boyz N The Hood sparked a wave of incidents at theaters, many of which were thought to be gang related. But a gunman also executed a moviegoer at a showing of X-Men: The Last Stand in Baltimore in 2006, an incident that was not widely publicized. A drive-by tied to no particular film at an Oakland theater left five people wounded earlier this summer. And today’s massacre is the worst in American cinematic history.
As the availability of heavy artillery continues to widen, as the NRA continues to send tweets like “Good Morning Shooters, what are your plans for the weekend?” as they did before news of the Aurora tragedy broke (it has since been deleted), we as a nation should look to control the proliferation of firearms and better regulate their sale with the same rigor dedicated to selectively vilifying film content through the filters of stereotype. The safety of who’s watching is much more important than what’s showing.
Thembisa S. Mshaka is a filmmaker, award-winning promo campaign writer and producer for television. She is also the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business (Hachette).
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