Media Representation And Thresholds For Success

On the NAACP Convention agenda this year? The lack of roles for black actors and the odd lack of space for stories about black characters in the vast sea of the media market. I don’t think anyone particularly disagrees that it would be a good thing for people of color if they were more accurately represented in our popular culture, and that it’s a good thing for people of all backgrounds to have more original stories in the mix. So the question, I think, is less, should we do this? and more how do we convince people to do this?

The threshhold that had to be crossed to get a lot of projects by, and about, funny women in development for film and television appears to have been the $164 million domestic gross for Bridesmaids. Why it wasn’t, say, the $153 million domestic gross for Sex and the City, is one of the secrets of the dark art of box office alchemy that’s probably better left unexamined lest Nikki Finke and Harvey Weinstein end up examining one’s entrails on a sound stage covered with pentagrams and candles. But whatever it was, there was a clear and repeated demonstration that women had money and would spend it on movies that depicted characters that they either identified with or saw as aspirational figures, and at some point, the studios were confident that this was a thing that they could do that would consistently make enough money to allow them to swim, Scrooge McDuck-like, in vast swimming pools of lady-riches.

So what’s the tipping point for movies about and starring people of color? Clearly, the streak Will Smith had between 2004 and 2008, when Shark Tale, Hitch, The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, and Hancock all made more than $150 million domestically and more than $350 million abroad, doesn’t seem to have done it. Or maybe it’s just that if an individual African-American actor generates enough revenue, rather than taking that as proof of the ability of African-American actors to be broadly appealing to audiences, studios instead start to see those individual actors as black rather than green. Tyler Perry’s movies have done fine — $50 million for Diary of a Mad Black Woman, $55 million for Why Did I Get Married? and $60 million for Why Did I Get Married Too?, $31 million for Daddy’s Little Girls — but either Perry isn’t that interested in moving beyond his core audience, as is his right, or even though he has his own studio, he’d have trouble finding distribution for a movie that’s meant to go beyond that core audience. I’d like to think the $603,625,827 that Fast Five’s made so far worldwide would be enough money to make studios think about every aspect of it, rather than simply the fact that it’s the next installment in a successful franchise, and we’ll have to see.

If you don’t control an industry, it’s not surprising that you might have to work harder to succeed in it, however unfair that seems. But I’d love to know what counts as success for people of color? And at what profit point does the industry count black audiences, Latino audiences, Asian audiences, and white audiences who don’t only want to see white faces on screen as mainstream?