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Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007 10:31 am

Misstep

What made Kerasotes think Springfield couldn't handle a film about black frats?

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Untitled Document The first Springfield screening of the movie Stomp the Yard had a certain air of excitement about it. The audience, filling maybe half the seats in the theater, included small children, middle-aged parents, canoodling couples, gray-haired elders, teenagers with jeans bagging and caps askew. Some of these people were African-American; some were of a lighter hue. All of us, though, were on our best behavior. Like kids who had wheedled mom and dad into letting us stay up late, we wanted to make sure they didn’t regret their decision. Of course, it probably helped that half the audience had rolled into to the Kerasotes Parkway Pointe Theatre on the way home from church. There’s a palpable difference between Friday night and Sunday afternoon, and there’s a reason movies traditionally open on Friday — but, in this case, getting the movie screened at all felt like a victory. Leaders of Springfield’s black community had used phone calls, e-mail, the media, and one large public gathering to persuade Kerasotes Showplace Theatres CEO Tony Kerasotes to show Stomp the Yard. He had originally planned to delay opening the film until at least Jan. 19, citing a concern that it would attract the same violent thugs who had fired shots inside his Parkway Pointe theater lobby, injuring one man, during the Christmas-night screening of the horror flick Black Christmas. “I was fearful the movie could become the occasion for more gang violence, because I felt certain it would draw that audience,” Kerasotes told the Associated Press. The only qualities shared by both the Greek fraternities featured in Stomp the Yard and the hoodlums who shot up the Parkway Pointe lobby are their approximate age, sex, and skin color. Stomp, after all, is wholesome, uplifting fare with an undeniably positive message. Kerasotes’ refusal to screen the film reeked of racial profiling, and the theater executive’s logic was roundly condemned by everybody from LA Weekly to the State Journal-Register, which called Kerasotes’ decision “unfair, illogical and indefensible.”
Kerasotes, however, is unpersuaded.
“I did have a little kernel of doubt as to whether I had done the right thing, but when the SJ-R came out editorially against what I did, I knew I had done the right thing. Because those [opinion writers] haven’t gotten out from behind their desks in years,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of people who just want to stick their heads up their politically correct anuses. That’s what that editorial said to me.”
Looking back over the events of the past week — the angry e-mails and phone calls, the national media scrutiny, the accusations of racism — Kerasotes says he wouldn’t change anything. “If I had it to do over again, I’d do it exactly the way I did it,” he says.
Rewind a few weeks to Christmas night. Parkway Pointe is screening Black Christmas, a slasher flick set, ironically, in a (white) sorority house. Suddenly a group of young men enter the Parkway Pointe lobby and rush past the ticket booth and into the theater. Another group of young men runs from the theater to the parking lot. Gunfire is exchanged. “The story I get is that two groups of gang members were in the theater,” Kerasotes says. “There must’ve been something starting up between them, because one group called for backup.”
The gunshots were fired from the lobby into the theater and from the theater into the lobby, Kerasotes says, acknowledging that “my information is pretty third-hand on that.”
Sgt. Pat Ross, public-information officer for the Springfield Police Department, says official reports aren’t available because the investigation is ongoing. But if Kerasotes’s version of events is accurate, the shooting had to be traumatic for his employees. “I would be terrified,” Kerasotes says. “It’s not something you bargain for when you go to work at a place of business. Would you want your kid working in that situation?”
Julian Randle, 18, was shot in the pelvis. Police arrested Henry Gayton, also 18, for armed violence and mob action, though published reports say Gayton is not the person suspected by police of shooting Randle. Kerasotes says the fact that this crime is yet unsolved and the shooters are still on the street is the reason he decided to postpone opening Stomp the Yard. “I thought that the film would be of interest to the same group of people that caused problems on Christmas,” he says. It’s not, he insists, that he doesn’t understand Stomp the Yard. Even though he hasn’t seen it and doesn’t plan to (Kerasotes calls movie-going “a little bit of a busman’s holiday,” and says the last film he saw was The Prestige), he had watched a CBS Sunday Morning segment featuring Greek fraternity stepping and the making of Stomp. “I wasn’t totally brain-dead on the movie,” he says. However, he says, a nonviolent movie doesn’t guarantee a nonviolent audience. “Just because the subject matter is wholesome, which Stomp the Yard is, it does not necessarily mean that people who could cause difficulties won’t show up,” Kerasotes says. “We had difficulties in several locations on [the movie] Drumline, and that’s about marching bands, for Christ’s sake. If you don’t have experience, you might scratch your head and say, ‘It’s PG-13! Why worry about it?’ But we make decisions based on our experiences.”

To prove his position, Kerasotes points to an incident that took place in one of his Rockford, Ill., theaters last Friday night as Stomp the Yard opened. Nine black males, ranging in age from approximately 14 to 30, caused such a ruckus in the lobby, the manager refunded their ticket money and four off-duty police officers, hired by Kerasotes to provide security, ejected them from the theater. Minutes later, as the officers checked the parking lot, gunfire was heard. Jonie Davis, the general manager who was in charge at the Showplace 16 in Rockford that night, heard “shots fired” over her radio and immediately looked toward the parking lot. “Customers who had just gotten out of a movie were running back toward the building,” she says. “Customers who came for later shows said they stayed in their cars because of what was happening.”
Rockford Police Deputy Chief Greg Lindmark confirms that disorderly patrons were ejected from the cineplex that night, and that witnesses reported hearing shots fired. He says the incident is being investigated. The men who caused the problems didn’t have tickets to Stomp the Yard; they had bought tickets for Freedom Writers, a PG-13 movie based on the true story of a teacher who transforms a group of at-risk students. But the men had initially asked for Stomp tickets, only to find it was sold out, Davis says. Like Springfield, the Rockford theater experienced problems on the opening night of Black Christmas. “People wouldn’t behave. They stampeded into the auditorium and started jumping over the seats,” Davis reports. At one point, the staff stopped the film and announced it wouldn’t resume until the unruly customers left. These “behavior problems,” Davis says, prompted the decision to hire four security guards for the opening of Stomp instead of the usual two. Monitoring the mood of the moviegoing masses is an art, not a science, that Davis seems intent on mastering, even though there’s no ready-made lexicon to describe the shifts. “Different nights, you get different crowds,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s opening night versus not opening night, Friday versus Saturday, or what. Like Saturday night, we had behavior problems, but we didn’t think anybody had a gun. There’s a feeling . . . ”
It’s not always bad. In fact, on the second night Stomp the Yard showed at the Rockford theater, a group of young black patrons gathered in the lobby and spontaneously started dancing. “It was definitely a better feeling,” Davis says. “It looked like they were imitating the movie or doing a cheer for their school. They came to see the movie and they had a good time, just like they should.”

Stomp still wouldn’t be visible in Springpatch were it not for the aggressive action of outraged black fraternities and sororities, who called a press conference last week at the offices of the Springfield Housing Authority. About 50 people attended, and though Tony Kerasotes was not present, they had plenty of advice for him.
Ralph Williams, an attorney and member of Omega Psi Phi, acknowledged that Kerasotes’ rights as a private business owner, saying he has a “serious liability issue” should another shooting occur at one of his theaters. “He had to take action — but he didn’t take the right action,” Williams said. Others said that Kerasotes should have beefed up security rather than punish the community for the acts of a few, or consulted with African-American leaders on the best way to handle the situation. If Kerasotes’ fear was that black boys might cause a disturbance, one person suggested assembling a group of black men to serve as volunteer chaperones. Though some were willing to work with the theater owner, others wanted to tell Kerasotes
to step.
The B-word came up more than once; there  was much talk of boycotting the capital city’s only movie theater chain. Zeta Phi Beta member Tammy Lackland went so far as to call Sony Pictures to see how much it would cost to bring the film here for an independent showing (at least $10,000). Another call was also placed to Magic Johnson Theatres — which operates movie houses in five states and is looking to expand into “free film zones” in underserved urban communities, according to information on the company’s Web site. But the discussion did not end there or when Kerasotes relented and opened the film two days after its national release date. Activist Roy Williams hopes that people speak out as loudly about violence on the city’s east side as they did about Kerasotes’ decision to delay Stomp. “When a shooting happens on the east side, it should be as important as when it happens on the west side — and there should be as much of an outcry when there’s a shooting that happens on the east side,” he says. “Shots have been fired on the east side and at the mall before. If we start prosecuting when they do it then, maybe crime wouldn’t make it to Parkway Pointe.” Williams says.
Whatever anybody wants to say about Tony Kerasotes, you have to give him this: He takes responsibility for his own actions. Asked whether Parkway employees or police suggested delaying Stomp the Yard, he says no. Did he consult anybody before making this wildly unpopular decision? No. Does he regret it? No. “I made the decision myself,” he says. He complains that many incidents that would explain his stance — incidents such as the one witnessed by Jonie Davis in Rockford — go unreported by the media and law-enforcement agencies. “It’s a conspiracy of silence,” he says. “If you talk about it, you wind up in the newspapers like I did, with everybody calling you racist.”
He rejects that label, insisting that his only concern is the safety of his customers. “The decision wasn’t based on any bad feelings toward the black population whatsoever. The man who got hurt [in the Christmas shooting] was a black man. I’m just looking to protect my audience the best I can, with my imperfect knowledge, based on my experience. That’s all it’s about,” he says. “It kind of amazes me that there’s so much public discussion about a film not playing and so little discussion about the violence that happened at the Parkway on Christmas Day. I did not receive a call from the NAACP offering to help me with that situation. I didn’t get a ‘What can we do to help?’ call after that. But a film doesn’t open on Friday, and it’s the end of the frigging world,” he says. “There are people who have become too tolerant of gangs and guns. It’s an accepted risk for some people. But I don’t think it should be an accepted risk for my patrons.”


Stomp versus Dog

Kerasotes’ refusal to show a movie about the traditional steppin’ rivalry between two black fraternities because of a fear of “gang violence” takes on an ironic twist when Stomp the Yard is compared to Alpha Dog, a movie glorifying white gang violence that opened Jan. 12.
Stomp the Yard
Rating: PG-13 for one scene of violence, some sexual material and language Marquee star: Nobody you ever heard of, but once you see it you’ll never forget Columbus Short. Cast: Cousins of Cosby spin-off A Different World
Plot: Hardscrabble kid pulls himself up by his bootstraps — literally. Fairytale formulaic, cheesy, soap-operatic; Boyz Bring It On in Timberlands. Gang/thug life: The frat brothers consider it low-class; protagonist DJ considers it tragic. Substance abuse: A little beer, a couple of tequila shots,
no drugs
The F-bomb: Did anybody in Stomp the Yard drop it? Not that we recall. Audience appeal: Preteens and up, especially college kids Best part of the movie: The finale! Duh! Worst: So sweet that you might need an insulin shot. Controversy that has nothing to do with Springfield gangs: The general president of the black fraternal organization Alpha Phi Alpha urged a boycott of the film, citing unauthorized use of its symbols, but endorsed the pic after Sony Pictures Entertainment agreed to digitally remove APA symbols and donate a percentage of the opening weekend grosses to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.
Who’s the real Alpha Dog? Stomp the Yard came in No. 1 at the box office, grossing $22 million in its opening weekend
Alpha Dog
Rating: R for pervasive drug use and language, strong violence, sexuality and nudity Marquee star: ’N Sync pretty boy turned Timbaland pop protégé Justin Timberlake Cast: Hedonistic suburban cousins of Beverly Hills 90210 
Plot: Overindulged brainless slacker brats squander privilege. Gang/thug life: highest ambition of these misogynistic wannabes Substance abuse: Glorified by every character, including parents; drugs and alcohol permeate virtually every frame of
this film
F-bomb: Used in place of all adjectives, adverbs, and articles; also substituted for such miscellaneous utterances as “like” and “um”
Audience appeal: Cynics, realists, and the Natural Born
Killers
 crowd Best part of the movie: The late, great Eva Cassidy’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” heard during the opening credits
Worst: The relentlessly and aggressively anti-minority, anti-female, anti-gay antics of the main characters Controversy that has nothing to do with Springfield gangs: Jesse James Hollywood, the real-life inspiration for the lead canine character of Johnny Truelove, tried to get an injunction to block the release of Alpha Dog because of his pending capital-murder trial. Who got Stomped: Alpha Dog came in No. 7 at the box
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION:
Darrin Henson, who co-stars in Stomp the Yard as Mu Gamma president Grant, was choreographer for boy band ’N Sync and taught Justin Timberlake how to dance. Timberlake was Britney Spears’ boyfriend from about 1998 to 2002. After their breakup, she was romantically linked with her “In the Zone” tour choreographer and backup dancer — no, not Kevin Federline — Columbus Short, star of Stomp the Yard.
— Dusty Rhodes, Marissa Monson, and R.L. Nave


Stepping 101

Amid the controversy surrounding the decision by Kerasotes Theatres decision not to show the film Stomp the Yard in Springfield, the burning question on the minds of many residents of the capital city is “What the heck is stepping?”
Well, one thing stepping isn’t is dancing. Participants aren’t called “step dancers,” nor are step shows considered dance contests.
Modern stepping, depending on which choreographer/historian you listen to, is derived from the movements of either boot-clad South African laborers or American slaves.
Black Greek-letter organizations, founded in the early 20th century, popularized the art form. With a complicated amalgamation of clapping, stomping, and sometimes twirling and tapping of colorfully decorated canes, steppers create music, whereas dancers perform to it. The atmosphere of a step show is electric, not unlike that of a prizefight. The audience dresses to impress. Participants, usually representing their fraternity’s or sorority’s college chapter, are judged on originality, precision, and overall presentation on the basis of crowd response or by a panel. As much fun as step shows are, however, black fraternities and sororities, which participate in many different community-service activities, stress that stepping is a very small part of what their organizations are about.

R.L. Nave


Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com and R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

Also showing . . .

While Tony Kerasotes was sweating out the potential real-life consequences of booking Stomp the Yard, a flick about black frat life, there was plenty of mayhem showing in his theaters. Here are snapshots of a few of the choices playing on Kerasotes screens. All of these films are rated R.
Alpha Dog Sunny Southern California has never looked so dismal as it does in this tale of white suburban gangsta wannabes who try to collect on a drug debt. Along the way, there’s oral sex, gay-bashing, broken bones, a woman yanked off a toilet, a man defecating in a living room, nudity, profanity, and, oh yeah, the brutal murder of a youngster. Based on the life of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest men to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.
Apocalypto — Mel Gibson’s latest creation depicts the advanced Mayan culture on its last legs, facing destruction. There’s so much mutilation, rape, and carnage in this film, you’ll be hoping that a boatload of Catholic Spaniards show up to knock some sense into these primitives. You’ll especially love the severed heads bouncing down the temple steps.
Black Christmas — Nope, it’s not an African-American version of the holiday. This remake of the 1974 slasher flick finds sorority sisters dropping like flies — being impaled, having their eyes gouged out, and their necks broken — during Christmas break. Ho-ho-ho.
Saw III The third in a series about a sadist named Jigsaw, this film has plenty of grisly gore, torture, and terror, including a scene in which a naked woman hangs upside down in a meat locker, shivering on her way to death while being sprayed with water. We’ve been told that it’s a morality tale.
— Marissa Monson

Also from Dusty Rhodes and R. L. Nave

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