At the Hollywood Reporter, Pamela McClintock and Rebecca Ford have a long piece about the success of movies with African-American main characters, which has been one of the most important and welcome trends of this year in filmgoing. But part of what’s striking about the piece is how surprised many of McClintock and Ford’s sources seem by the trend, and how deep the assumption runs that white movie audiences aren’t interested in African-American leads, no matter the subject matter or genre of a project.
“A quarter of a century ago, these movies wouldn’t have crossed over to a white audience,” Erik Lomis, who runs the distribution division at The Weinstein Company tells the reporters. Gil Robertson, who co-founded the African-American Film Critics Association credits President Obama’s election with rendering white audiences “more open to seeing stories that reflect the diversity of people in this country.” And Searchlight’s Steve Gilula said that “One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are more and more of a rainbow country in terms of ethnicity and blended families. Rigid lines are starting to break down in terms of cinema, too.”
I’d be curious to see a more historical fisking given to this assumption. The one real example McClintock and Ford site is the relatively low white attendance for George Lucas’ Red Tails. That movie was heavily promoted in African-American churches and civil rights leaders, with a clear message that making the film a box-office success would be critical to getting other films with black leads, and about black history, green-lit. That ask ended up eclipsing any argument that could have been made for Red Tails merits as art or history and reduced it to a charity case. And the way Red Tails flopped clearly didn’t stop Fruitvale Station, for example, from getting picked up at Sundance, or 12 Years A Slave from dominating Oscar buzz.
But more to the point, where does the assumption that white audiences aren’t interested in non-white characters come from? Why would a World War II movie with dogfighting pilots be interesting to white audiences if the pilots in question are white, a la Pearl Harbor*, but not if the men behind the controls are African-American, as they are in Red Tails? What makes an ensemble romantic comedy with a schticky premise where only one of the characters is black, as Chiwetel Ejiofor is in Love Actually, so wildly different from one where only one of the characters is white, as was the case in Think Like A Man? Why would we assume that only African-American audiences feel a need to reckon with the realities and legacies of slavery at a movie like 12 Years A Slave, a premise that suggests no white audiences anywhere feel shame or rage about our ancestors’ collaboration from a fundamental flaw in America’s origins, and the ways we continue to benefit from that flaw today? And why would anyone think that only African-Americans are affected when a young man is shot on a BART platform? That black men are targeted by law enforcement more frequently than white men or women doesn’t mean that the effects of such deaths are rigidly confined to African-American people, as if no white people anywhere have African-American family, friends, lovers, co-workers or co-parishoners.
It’s true that part of the point of telling stories about non-white characters is to improve the variety of our storytelling, whether we’re putting new parts of familiar histories on the big screen, tossing new sorts of obstacles in lovers’ paths, or finding variations on family squabbles. But audiences are obviously capable of — and interested — in engaging with all sorts of characters whose lives are different from our own. We happily consume stories about characters who are super-rich, or even whose real estate seems out of whack what they ought to be able to afford. We embrace criminal families and gobble up the exploits of super-people. Plenty of movies that are labeled “black films” portray characters and events that have more in common with the lived experiences of most white filmgoers than the events of movies that are blithely assumed to be accessible to white audiences.
Over time, marketing decisions and the rise of studios like Tyler Perry’s, may have helped codify the idea that the simple presence of black actors in a film automatically transfers that film from one genre to another. But that division is hardly a natural one. And one of the quickest ways to break it down would be to try harder to sell movies to the audiences who ought to like them based on their content, rather than the race of the actors in question. Sell The Best Man Holiday and Think Like A Man to those of us who are burned out on the bad scripts that seem to cling to Katherine Heigl like flies. Push Red Tails not just to church groups, but to survivors of the Greatest Generation and the Boomers trying to understand their parents. And trust Steve McQueen’s arthouse pedigree to bring in everyone from people who want to feel good about themselves by engaging with history, to anyone who swoons over gorgeous shots of palmetto groves.
*My greatest high school triumph may have been convincing the school to take all students currently enrolled in American History on a field trip to a Pearl Harbor screening.