Heading to a movie theater on Christmas Day has become a tradition for many American families, and Hollywood has responded by loading the holiday with big releases.
But if you’re a resident of Jackson, Mississippi, you would have had to leave the city limits to catch the opening of Django Unchained or Les Misérables. There hasn’t been a movie theater in the state’s capital since the 20th century. The last of the city’s theaters closed, with a whimper, in the late 1990s.
The lack of a movie theater may not seem like such a big deal when many urban centers struggle to attract more obvious necessities, such as grocery stores or people. But municipal officials in Jackson feel the lack keenly enough that they have been working to recruit a theater since 2009, according to the local Clarion-Ledger newspaper – so far, without success. The city’s leaders are now talking about maybe using grants or tax incentives to attract a new theater to Jackson, or maybe reopening the old Pix/Capri theater as an art house.
The cinematic void in Mississippi’s largest city, which has a population of more than 175,000 people, reflects deeper demographic trends in the area, according to the article:
"The fact that there are no longer any movie houses within the corporate limits of Jackson reflects white flight to the suburbs, the convenience of suburban theaters in Rankin and Madison counties, and the continuing fear of crime in Jackson," said Jerry Dallas, a retired history professor at Delta State University who grew up in Jackson and graduated from Provine High School in 1959.
Dallas has done his research. His fascinating paper "Movie Theaters in Twentieth-Century Jackson" is posted at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History [PDF]. In it, he documents how the increasing tension over racial segregation and negative depictions of Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s unfolded in the city’s dozen movie theaters (which were themselves segregated), including the Royal Music Hall, a white theater:
On the eve of the Royal’s demise [in 1959] its manager, George Pollitz, complained that "clandestine" City Hall racial censorship denied Jackson access to some current top movies. The Royal had scheduled and advertised Kings Go Forth, a movie depicting a romance between a white man and a mulatto, but because of official pressure, about which Mayor [Allen] Thompson claimed to know nothing, it had to be cancelled. Other theater managers, although requesting anonymity lest they be branded as "integrationists" confirmed Pollitz’s grievance and stated that they too had been pressured by city officials not to offer movies showing racial integration. One recalled that before the 1954 Supreme Court integration decision the film "Pinky" played in Jackson without incident, but he "couldn’t touch that movie with a ten-foot pole now." Yet another reported that while theaters all over the country were clamoring for The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis and black star Sidney Poitier, there were no plans to book it for Jackson because its presentation wouldn’t be allowed.
The disappearance of movie theaters from the city’s core and their entrenchment in the surrounding suburbs is just one aspect of the hollowing-out that has been a problem for Jackson, and so many other cities, for generations now. It’s significant that even today, with more and more people watching movies at home, people feel an emptiness where the theaters once were. From the Clarion-Ledger article:
Bennie Hopkins, director of Planning and Development for the city of Jackson, said it’s a topic frequently talked about in his office "because we hear our clients and constituents asking why we don’t have a theater."
Movie theaters may not be quite as important to the vitality of an urban core as healthy food, or decent bars, or coffee shops. But they do serve a purpose, and in a city with a long history of social division, they could be a great place for people to come together.
Will Jackson residents ever be able to spend Christmas sitting rapt in a hometown theater, clutching their popcorn as the Hollywood narratives unspool on the big screen? The ending to this story has yet to play out.
Top image: One of the old theaters there that may reopen someday, courtesy of Flickr user /\ \/\/ /\.