Couple unveils first of it kind movie theaters in New Jersey
While African American owned movie theaters are rare, Ayana Morris and her husband Siree Morris established the first of it kind in the heart of New Jersey.
Approaching the entrance of the cinema, one would be welcomed with Beyonce’s rendition of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s perennial cookout classic “Before I Let Go” that blares over a loud speaker. The DJ is always there to play what feels like an endless stream of R&B and Hip Hop oldies. It’s one of the first things you notice when you arrive at Newark Moonlight Cinema.
There’s also the savory aroma of catered barbecue fresh off the grill, satiating enough to coerce you to try some. The atmosphere feels like a block party, minus the booze: this is not your typical moviegoing experience.
Brick City’s newest and only drive-in theater is perhaps the happening weekend spot in New Jersey’s largest city. To borrow a line from hip hop, it’s a vibe.
“That’s our slogan. When you come here, you’re going to have good energy. It’s going to be a great vibe,” said co-owner, Ayana Morris.
While the country is battling with its history of anti-Black racism and simultaneously fighting a pandemic, Newark Moonlight Cinema makes two statements; one is that Black culture should be celebrated, the other is that folks in Newark are resilient.
The cinema opened three weeks ago, on July 24, after just three months of planning. Located at the grounds of the former Newark Bears baseball stadium, it only operates on the weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday). And it only screens one movie each night; every film is a celebration of Black art.
One night, you may catch the war and crime thriller “Dead Presidents,” starring Larenz Tate. Another night, it could be Jordan Peele’s critically-acclaimed horror film “Us.”
“I saw that the thought behind the theater was to promote Black actors and Black filmmakers,” said moviegoer, Z. Medina. “That’s an extra, extra incentive to want to come support my community, especially this year, with more of our issues on the front (headlines).”
Ayana Morris and her husband Siree Morris conceived the idea in May. Ayana is also a filmmaker. She says she was inspired to open the seasonal drive-in after learning about plans for an outdoor film festival, which screened her Newark-centered documentary “Why Is We Americans?” earlier this year. Siree works in real estate, which helped with drawing up site proposals, he says.
As Black business owners, the Morris’ know minority firms in the U.S. face an uphill battle. Black-owned movie theaters are reportedly rare throughout the country. Together for 15 years, the fun-spirited Morrises feel they know their consumer base almost as well as they know each other.
“We think that now is a time when Black business, Black entrepreneurship, Black imagery is on the forefront,” Siree said.
It’s why onsite caterer, Tyree Crawford, owner of Crawford and Sons, wanted to be part of Newark Moonlight Cinema’s opening. The Vauxhall native can usually be found behind the grill.
“You take the moment and you seize it,” Crawford says. “There are plenty of opportunities out here, especially for the Black community. We’re going to do nothing but keep going.”
The owners say in the matter of just 17 days, they’ve managed to consistently pack the place. On a good night, the Morris family expects more than 300 cars to fit comfortably at their cinema, and they’ve already had to test those limits.
The business venture has also created jobs for people in the city. More than a dozen staff members, mainly local youth, were on hand to help direct traffic, serve food (which had to be ordered online) and assist with customer service.
Newark Moonlight Cinema is currently open through October 4. Gates open at 7p.m. on show nights. Screenings start at 9 p.m.
What do you think about this new cinema innovation?