When the Oaks Theater and its manager, Jared Earley, took the wheel of the out-of-breath Penn Hills Cinema last year, they invested a lot of resources applying an extreme makeover. Yet, once they got it all brand-spankin' new, they forgot to have the house-warming, or a grand opening -- something to announce their new presence in Penn Hills.
Instead, they opened with a horror- and murder-movie series. And the community let 'em have it. One lady, an Oaks regular, came in and told Earley that the gory films weren't gonna fly in this middle-class, African-American suburb. They needed to do something more family- and community-friendly.
"She wasn't very nice," says Earley, able to giggle about it now. "She was kinda mad at me."
But he got her point. This February, the Penn Hills Cinema features a Black History Month Film Series. The series will include four films: Richard Pryor: Here and Now (through Thu., Feb. 9); Emmanuel's Gift (Feb. 10-16); The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (Feb. 17-23); and Madea's Family Reunion (scheduled to be released Feb. 24).
The late Richard Pryor is now officially an icon of black history, though many proud African Americans, including critic Stanley Crouch, have argued they'd rather have Pryor erased from history due to his penchant for the profane. Negro, please. Richard Pryor is timeless, and 1983's sober-but-still-hilarious Here and Now, fittingly shot in New Orleans -- which is quickly becoming black history itself -- is as classic as anything done by the Cosbys, or whomever Crouch would prefer as our black comedic representative.
Madea's Family Reunion won't win any Afristocrat love, either. But who cares? Plenty of folks will love it when Madea -- the other Big Momma -- drops in for the hilarity of what could be any of our family reunions, complete with joints to huff and pistols to pop.
For those digging for the serious, Penn Hills offers two recent documentaries. Emmanuel's Gift is the inspirational story of a Ghanaian athlete who rode a bicycle across his country ... with one leg (how's that, Lance?). Keith A. Beauchamp's documentary Emmett Louis Till re-examines the 1955 death of the teen-age Chicago boy, visiting Mississippi, who met his bloody, brutal fate simply for whistling at a white woman. (Last year, as a result of Beauchamp's research, Mississippi re-opened the Till case.) Whether they learn about the current state of social politics in Africa or a pivotal moment in American civil-rights history, Penn Hills patrons will leave these films with plenty of satisfactory discussion.