How One Of The World’s Most Powerful Industries Underestimates Itself And Its Customers

Credit: Vibe
Credit: Vibe

Last week, I wrote about two of the stranger concepts that show up in our conversations about race and popular culture: the idea that any movie with characters of color in it must have race as its main subject, and the idea that characters of color’s lives are so different from those of white people that white audiences couldn’t possibly be interested in stories about characters of color. NPR’s television critic, Eric Deggans, was guest-hosting CNN’s Reliable Sources this weekend, and was kind enough to invite me and Viviana Hurtado on the show to talk about how pervasive — and how wrong — these theories are. The full video of our discussion is here:

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It was fun to get a chance to go on CNN — and I’m very grateful to the terrific producer I worked with, and to the network’s amazingly talented makeup artists — but most of all, chatting with Viviana and Eric got me thinking about a couple of simple things Hollywood could do to avoid falling into these fallacies.

First, it would be great to see studios (and directors) be very clear with their casting directors that they want to see actors of a variety of races for parts where a character isn’t written as a specific race or ethnicity, and where race and ethnicity plays no role in the plot or development of the character. A simple rule like this would require casting directors to familiarize themselves with a broader range of actors’ work, and to look in new places for actors who can embody different kinds of roles. It would get directors used to thinking in more flexible ways about what’s actually required for a part. And it would encourage writers to think more carefully about how to craft specific characters, and how to make a character’s racial or ethic background manifest itself in clear, specific, and engaging ways if that’s important to the part and to the project as a whole. Instead of making white actors the default for so many parts, a mandate to look at a much broader range of actors could force writers and directors to justify why a character to be white. That’s a recipe for better, more detailed writing, and a broader net in casting, and for directors to challenge more of their own assumptions about a role. And we might get fewer typecast actors and more interesting movies as a result.

Second, it’s time to start thinking more broadly about who the potential audience for movies is when it comes to placing advertising. Slate has a good explainer of how trailers get paired with movies: mostly, they pick a quadrant a movie is likely to appeal to, and then try to guess what other movies that quadrant might turn out for. “The studio releasing a given film typically has automatic rights to two of these slots, and theater executives (in consultation with higher-ups from various studios) select the remaining four,” writes Hillary Busis. “Before chick flicks, theaters play previews for romantic dramas as well as romantic comedies, because they figure that’s what young women will eventually want to see. Regal Cinemas also began matching red band trailers, which include profanity and sexually explicit scenes, with R, NC-17, and unrated movies in 2008. And sometimes theaters disregard quadrants altogether if something else ties the movies together — say, if they’re all in 3-D.” I have no real beef with the quadrant system. Rather, I think it would do studios, theaters, and audiences good to think a bit more expansively about what might appeal to folks in each of these quadrants. Clearly, when studios think they’ve got a potential crossover star, like Kevin Hart, trailers for his movies will get broad play, even in front of movies without black stars, as has been the case with Ride Along. Applying that logic to ensemble movies like The Best Man Holiday, or movies like Think Like A Man and Jumping The Broom, all of which are inflected by the race of their characters, but tell otherwise familiar stories in familiar forms, might help grown the potential audiences for these films, and the actors who star in them.

In other words, I wish studios would have more faith in themselves to build breakout stars of color, and to sell products that should be appealing to wide audiences to those audiences. Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Kevin Hart are all appealing, talented men. But there’s nothing so dramatically different about them and actors like Romany Malco, who is funnier than Smith will ever be, or J. August Richards, who fairly consistently earns better work than the words he’s given. Hollywood’s surprised itself for years by underestimating the appeal of actors of color and stories about their lives. I don’t know what it would take for the industry to change its expectations of itself and the consumers it serves. But it’s past time for entertainment companies to get a new set of measurements — and ambitions.