It’s been eleven years since Wyatt Cenac and Donwill started their live show “Shouting at the Screen,” and more than two years since they last hosted a live audience. Tonight, the pair are back, bringing their interactive show to Nitehawk Cinema in Prospect Park for the first time ever.
Shouting at the Screen celebrates 70s-era Blaxploitation films with running commentary and audience involvement. The film being shown isn’t announced until audiences arrive in the theater, where they’re greeted by a special guest, an introductory slideshow, and a custom-made drinking game for each movie.
The idea was born one night when Cenac was invited to a stranger’s house party after a concert.
“It was one of those uniquely New York things where you’re at a music show, and then somebody invites you to a house party, and you’re like, you don’t know whose house it is, and then you’re there,” he said. “When we were there, someone had put on this movie ‘The Thing With Two Heads, and everyone was watching it. And people who hadn’t seen it couldn’t believe how ridiculous it was.”
He and Donwill thought it would be fun to replicate the experience on a larger scale — and “Shouting at the Screen” was born.
They decided to stick exclusively with Blaxploitation films, like “The Thing With Two Heads,” in part because the genre and the people who got their start within it are often left out of the conversation about independent cinema, Cenac explained.
Initially coined as a negative term by the NAACP but now used in appreciation, Blaxploitation describes an era and a genre of independent films made by Black filmmakers for Black audiences. Movies like “Hit Man,” “Cleopatra Jones,” and “Detroit 9000” launched hundreds of careers, and the era was influential in the history of independent filmmaking.
“A lot of those filmmakers were independent filmmakers, and we talk about people like Melvin Van Peebles, but there were 200 of these films, and there were a lot of other filmmakers at that time who were experimenting and trying to push what filmmaking could be because they weren’t getting funding from these major studios,” Cenac said. “As ridiculous as these films are, it also felt like there’s an interesting way to celebrate this era of filmmaking.”
While they’re known for being comedic, the films also address serious societal issues. The 1976 movie “Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde,” Cenac said, is “ostensibly just a Frankenstein type of a movie,” but centers on the fact that medical centers in low-income communities are underfunded and under-resourced.
“The premises are just built on top of these grounded subject matters, but they go crazy telling the story,” Donwill said.
On April 28, when Shouting at the Screen makes its long-awaited return, the yet-unannounced film will kick off with the usual slideshow — like when a substitute teacher rolls in the projector, Donwill joked.
The two will take some time to build context around the film and the people in it, he explained, discussing the careers of the actors or directors.
“Also, sometimes, we build our own mystique around films, do a ‘What-if’ trajectory, following a character through their films as opposed to following an actor through their films,” he said.
Cenac and Donwill also take the time to lay out the rules for some “curated shouting” from the audience as they watch the movie, rather than letting things get too chaotic.
“We have different games and other things that we’ve kind of found in the movie, almost like Easter eggs, that we’re asking the audience to kind of help us point those things out,” Cenac said. “Because they haven’t seen these movies, if we say ‘Hey, here’s a weird thing to be on the lookout for, whenever they see it, or we see it, it becomes the collective thing of ‘let’s respond to that’, and maybe take a shot if it’s something weird.”
Shouting at the Screen is returning as a quarterly event, rather than the monthly one it was before the pandemic, so it’s more likely that both Cenac and Donwill can attend each show. Since early 2020, there’s been just one, unofficial evening of Shouting at the Screen, when a longtime audience member reached out to say they were moving away and wanted just one more show with their friends before they departed.
“You can’t really hire us out for parties, like party clowns, but that felt like a nice thing to have a loyal audience,” Cenac said. “A moviegoing experience is a collective experience, and what’s been nice is the sort of collective that’s been born around this show that continues to support as well as bring new people to the show.”
It’s a collective experience and one that amplifies Black spaces and Black media, Donwill said.
“Those spaces exist, but they’re not amplified, in a way,” he said. “We’re definitely doing our part to shed a little bit of light. A bit of understanding and appreciation for an era of film that changed the industry, and introduced us to people who we love and we know nowadays.”
“We live in a country where movies are huge, and they are these events, and so I think to be able to give the same level of appreciation to ‘Abar, The First Black Superman,’ as you would to a Superman movie, and put it in the same theater, I feel like there’s something nice about that,” Cenac added. “These two movies deserve to be in the same space, and people deserve to be able to engage with both of these movies and see what’s special about both of them.”
Shouting at the Screen kicks off at Nitehawk Cinema in Prospect Park on Thursday, April 28, at 9:15pm, with a DJ set by Donwill in the Trees Lounge at 8pm, and will return in July and October.