AMC to Fire Workers Who Confronted Black Woman at ‘Harriet’ Screening, Letter Says

When she saw a sold-out showing of the movie “Harriet” in Metairie, La., this month, Sandra Gordon thought the film was excellent — but the experience was fraught.

Ms. Gordon, 65, said that as she tried to watch the movie, a historical drama about the life of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, she was confronted by three theater employees, one of whom paused the movie, angering the audience. The employees repeatedly sought confirmation that Ms. Gordon was in the right seat, she said.

And she was — every time they checked.

Ms. Gordon, who is black, said the employees were white. “I think race did play a role,” she said in an interview on Friday. “But I also think ignorance played a role. I think it’s a twofold problem.”

Ms. Gordon was attending an evening showing on Nov. 3 at an AMC theater with 14 other black women, all members of a charitable community organization called the 504 Queens. The women had bought their tickets in advance, and Ms. Gordon took her place in Seat E8.

The film had been playing for more than an hour — Ms. Gordon called it well acted and “very emotional”— when she saw a man approach her aisle and then leave. Ms. Gordon said it seemed to her that he was confused about his seat assignment, but she could not be sure.

Minutes later, she said, a theater employee approached her and told her that she was in the wrong seat. Ms. Gordon took out her phone to show the employee that she was not. Shortly after that, a different employee entered the theater, paused the film and turned on the lights, Ms. Gordon said, demanding to see her ticket and accusing her of being disruptive and rude.

This time, members of the audience began to get angry. Those close to Ms. Gordon defended her, she said, while people farther away called for her to be removed. But she was in the correct seat, and she stayed there.

Then a third employee entered and asked, once more, to see her ticket. She complied.

But after the movie ended, Ms. Gordon, her friends and several strangers from the audience stayed at the theater to speak with a manager. They all got refunds and left the theater, Ms. Gordon said.

But she and the other members of her organization were not happy with the way they had been treated. So they reached out to Alison McCrary, a Catholic nun and a civil rights lawyer in New Orleans. Together, they talked about what “healing and justice looked like” for the women of 504 Queens, Sister Alison said, and what they thought AMC should do to “right this wrong.”

Sister Alison said she had known some of the women for decades and considered them to be her “spiritual mentors.” The treatment they received at AMC made them feel “like criminals on that day,” she said, adding, “They were humiliated and embarrassed.”

So they composed a list of demands, including “anti-racism and anti-oppression training” for AMC staff members, the firing of the three employees who had confronted Ms. Gordon and opportunities for students in the Metairie area to see “Harriet” for free.

First, the list captured the attention of local news outlets. Then it made national headlines.

And it prompted AMC Theaters, which is based in Kansas, to address Ms. Gordon’s concerns and respond to the demands laid out by the 504 Queens. In a Nov. 13 letter to the group that Sister Alison shared with The New York Times, AMC said it had made plans to terminate the three employees involved.

In the letter, the theater chain said that it would donate the profits from all tickets and concessions sold at the theater on Nov. 29 to the 504 Queens. That will help the organization give more food, clothes and toys to children and their families this holiday season, Ms. Gordon said.

AMC Theaters did not immediately respond to requests for comment or confirm the veracity of the letter.

Sister Alison said on Friday that threats were made against the women of the 504 Queens this week.

“Some of the comments that have been made have not been nice,” Ms. Gordon said. “I am taking the high road, but it is a bit much.”

Ms. Gordon noted the wry coincidence that the experience unfolded as she was watching a movie about a black woman who risked her life to fight slavery and racism.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland but fled in 1849. She made multiple trips back to the South, however, and freed hundreds of others, becoming an instrumental figure in the Underground Railroad, a network of people who offered shelter to those traveling north to escape enslavement. During the Civil War, she worked as a scout, a nurse and a spy for Union forces.

In 2016, the Obama administration announced plans to put Tubman’s likeness on the front of the $20 bill, effectively pushing Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and a slaveholder, to the back. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin postponed those plans this year, saying Tubman would not become the face of the bill until 2026.

“Harriet” sparked a different kind of uproar on social media this week when a writer for the movie, Gregory Allen Howard, said in The Los Angeles Times that in 1994, a studio executive — whom he did not name — had suggested that Tubman could be played by Julia Roberts, a white actress.

Sister Alison said she was encouraged by AMC’s “positive” response to the letter from the 504 Queens. As the women requested, the company has opened its doors to students in the Metairie area for free showings of “Harriet.”

I think they’ve done what we have asked to try to make this right,” she said. “But racial tensions are high, and healing doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a week. It doesn’t happen in a month. It takes time.”