When I wanted to see Night Catches Us, an independent black film released in 2011, there was only one theater in Chicago where it got a regular run: The ICE Chatham 14 on 87th Street.
But for movie-goers on Chicago's South Side, the Chatham is one of only a few options for seeing any film.
So you can imagine how people felt when they showed up Friday night and found a dark, shuttered theater.
The Cook County Sheriff’s office issued an eviction notice, which was on the door of the theater, along with another sign saying the theater was "temporarily closed" and would re-open soon "under new management." The Sheriff’s office and the Cook County Circuit Clerk’s office had no forthcoming information.
Now the theater may be re-opening. In an e-mail, owner Alisa Starks (who along with her husband Donzell opened the theater in 1997) said, "It's been a challenging process. But the theater is expected to be open by Friday." Starks also said a new company will manage it.
The rift that apparently caused the original closure, a conflict between the Starks and their investor, Michael Silver, seems to have been smoothed over, at least temporarily. Starks told me, "Most positively, our investor has recently committed to making needed capital improvements."
What led to the shuttering of the Chatham had been hard to sort out. In the immediate aftermath of the closing, there were various reports, starting with this community blog. A Chicago Sun-Times article claimed the Starks have a history of not paying city amusement taxes and had been to court with movie distributors. And CBS2 quoted sources saying things went sour between the Starks and Silver.
The Starks own outright their Lawndale 10 theater on Roosevelt Road and a shuttered property at 62nd and Western. At Chatham both Starks and Silver have discussed plans for digital convergence and other improvements, but those can't proceed without some sort of resolution between the partners.
There are only a few other theaters on the South Side, including the AMC Ford City 14 and the Chicago Ridge 6 to the west of Chatham, as well as the Showplace Icon in the South Loop. At the University of Chicago there's the student-run Doc Films. And when the Harper Court and 53rd Street redevelopment is complete, Hyde Park will once again have a commercial movie theater.
But the Chatham is special in other ways. When Alisa and Donzell Starks opened it in 1997, they say they were launching the first African-American owned theater chain in the United States.
I spoke with the Starks in 2011, as they were about to re-open their ICE Lawndale movie theater. They underscored the significance of being a minority-owned theater serving a largely minority community, and providing people with easy access to mainstream movies, as well as films they might otherwise not see.
At Chatham they screened the latest Hollywood movies. But they also made a place for independent cinema, and for community events: hosting non-film conversations, and screening the presidential debates for free.
The Starks say they also wanted to provide locals with jobs and help with the area's overall economic development. In short, the Chatham was meant to be a place not just to see movies but also a place for community building.
Meanwhile, the community has mobilized. A number of Facebook campaigns were put together by Occupy Black Chicago and Occupy Black Media, local activists mobilizing around economic issues in minority communities. They see the closing of Chatham 14 in the context of a broader economic decline in parts of the city and a lack of access to community and cultural resources, particularly on the South Side.
Alisa Starks also said ICE is "still contemplating" a press release and statement, likely shortly after the theater re-opens this Friday.