Black Wealth, Racial Disparities In Movies, And Why We Don’t Have A Harriet Tubman Biopic

Writing about Harriet Tubman, who’s been a subject of his in recent days, Ta-Nehisi Coates took up a subject near to my own heart, the lack of support for biopics about people of color. And he identifies an important point about one of the hurdles for getting such movies made:

Moreover, movie-making is risky and expensive. Any discussion of the lack of a Harriet Tubman biopic should begin with the shameful fact that median white wealth in this country stands at $110,000 and median black wealth stands at around $5,000. It would be nice to think that this gap reflected choices cultural and otherwise, instead of the fact that for most this country’s history its governing policy was to produce failure in black communities, and most of its citizens supported such policies. It would be nice if Hollywood were more moral and forward-thinking than its consumer base. But I would not wait around for such a day.

It’s absolutely true that there isn’t an African-American or Latino equivalent of Megan Ellison, the daughter of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, and the head of Annapurna Pictures. In 2012 alone, Ellison gave us two movies that I think would have been hard-pressed to be financed by more conventional production companies, and certainly not at the length and pacing that they’ve made it into theaters, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Part of what makes Ellison important is not just that she can afford to finance pictures like these in the first place, but that she can afford to lose money on some of them. That’s actually the most necessary criteria to get truly daring movies made, because it means there’s space to focus on a figure who isn’t necessarily a four-quadrant subject, to approach someone who might be broadly fascinating from a novel perspective, as Anderson did with the founder of Scientology in The Master, to give a filmmaker the space they need to tell a story with nuance and completeness, or to accept an unusual arc that doesn’t hit the emotional beats of a conventional three-act structure.

George Lucas, at least with Red Tails, showed that he was prepared to spend $58 million—which doesn’t actually count as an enormous amount of money for an action movie anymore—to tell an under-explored historical story. But that’s not the same thing as spending money repeatedly, or pulling together other groups of investors to commit to a series of projects aimed at building an audience for a different kind of movie.

And at the end of the day, financing the production of a movie is only half the battle. Movies need to find distributors who will put them in theaters, or to find video on demand placement. Advertising costs, which aren’t built into production budgets, are enormous—Reuters estimated in 2010 that studios were spending between 55 and 58 cents for every dollar they spent on movie production and release costs on marketing. That’s a daunting hurdle for movies that are being made and distributed outside of that system: word of mouth about a movie’s excellence or importance go only so far when they’re up against reams of television spots, wrapped buses, and giant billboards.

With, say, a Harriet Tubman biopic (if such a movie could get made without Zoe Saldana in the starring role, and without being turned into a ludicrous action picture), it would be nice to get the movie made in the first place, but the real goal should be to get that film in front of a whole bunch of people. And it takes more than some rich people and some visionaries to achieve that. It takes an infrastructure that’s willing to take risks and absorb losses with people like Ellison because they want to be in business with those rich people and those visionaries, and to be associated with the critical buzz and awards that can come from working with those people, even if the financial returns aren’t there. Black wealth is part of the equation. But the infrastructure part of the lift is heavy, too.