As one film critic rightly asks, “Isn’t there anything better for the urban-marketed movies than this dreck?”
But how is it that a movie theater could be charged with racism for simply telling Tyler Perry fans to turn off their cell phones?
That’s the issue that the Delaware Supreme Court had to decide earlier this month in a civil rights case brought against Carmike Cinemas.
On October 12, 2007, Carmike Cinemas in Dover, Delaware opened the Tyler Perry movie, “Why Did I Get Married?” Tyler Perry is apparently big in Dover, so David Stewart, the theater manager, scheduled the movie to be shown simultaneously in three auditoriums.
Before each showing, there was the typical message displayed on the screen reminding everybody to turn off their cell phones and to refrain from talking during the movie.
Stewart, who is Caucasian, decided to reinforce this message by making a live announcement to the same effect in the theater’s largest auditorium, which seats 130 people. Before “Why Did I Get Married?” started, Stewart told the packed house to turn off their cell phones, stay quiet, and remain in their seats.
The audience was 90 to 95 percent African-American and certain patrons who heard Stewart’s message were offended, apparently not liking its tone.
Unfortunately for Carmike Cinemas, one of the offended members of the audience turned out to be Juana Fuentes-Bowles, the Director of the Delaware Human Relations Division. Fuentes-Bowles stood up and proclaimed that Stewart’s announcement was racist.
What’s more, Fuentes-Bowles circulated a sign-up sheet, getting the contact information of other patrons who were offended.
This resulted in a race discrimination charge filed with the Delaware Human Relations Commission. The 23 individual plaintiffs alleged they were “insulted, humiliated, and demeaned” — not by Tyler Perry’s movie — but by Stewart’s announcement.
The Commission agreed that Stewart and his employer, Carmike Cinemas, violated a state law which prohibits denying access to public accommodations on the basis of race or color.
For this violation, the Commission ordered Carmike Cinemas to pay each plaintiff $1,500 in damages, plus attorney fees and costs. The theater chain was also ordered to pay an additional $5,000 fine to the state.
Fortunately, sanity prevailed in the end with the state’s courts overturning the Commission’s decision.
This month’s decision by the Delaware Supreme Court put a final nail in the coffin of the lawsuit.
The court said that the plaintiffs “did not (and cannot) establish a prima facie case of discrimination, because the undisputed facts show that there was no disparate treatment as between the African-American and non-African-American members of the relevant audience.”
The court explained that “[a]ll audience members were treated the same way: all those who attended the Tyler Perry movie that night in the largest auditorium heard the Stewart announcement. The [plaintiffs] (who were African-American) were treated no differently from all other audience members in the auditorium, including other non-complaining African-Americans … plus Caucasian and other non-minority attendees.” (Boggerty v. Stewart)
- Pat Murphy