“Are All Cult Movies White?”

by Latoya Peterson


Regular reader Charlotte wrote in with a very interesting question:

I’m in a class at my university that focuses on cult movies and gender issues, and my professor has been describing the cult movie phenomenon as specifically white and middle class. You guys have been running a lot of articles on fans of color recently, and I was wondering whether what my professor said was actually true. Do you know anything about the breakdown of cult movie audiences? Or are we just watching all the white cult movies and paying attention to the white cult audiences? The readings she’s assigned have agreed that audiences are certainly mostly white, but we’re also studying most of the more accepted/acceptable/entrenched cult movies, like Rocky Horror or Bladerunner.

Good question.

I suppose there are two questions at play – what defines a cult classic, and which things are considered cult to what types of audiences?

For the first, a cult movie is determined by its following. Other than that, details are hazy about how a film makes it into the cult cannon. (Any film students/makers/scholars feel free to chime in here.) Entertainment Weekly published a list of the “Top 50 Cult Movies” in 2003. The results themselves are fairly diverse. Akira, Shawshank Redemption, The Warriors, The Mack, Dawn of the Dead, the Wiz, The Harder They Come, and Friday (among others) are all represented.

Also, I don’t think cult films break down neatly among racial lines, especially as much of their popularity is due to genre. For example, I’ve watched Akira, because that was an anime classic. EW mentioned This is Spinal Tap – since I’m a congoing geek, I’ve watched This Is Otakudom. Everyone I knew growing up had seen the Wiz; I really like Jim Henson so I will always catch the midnight showing of Labyrinth. Sometimes, it’s a decade thing – I read the EW list and immediately thought “Where the hell are Purple Rain, Crybaby, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Coming to America?” (They did get Heathers.)

However, I have noticed some things are race-based/ethnicity based cult classics. The majority of the African-Americans in my social circle have watched Love Jones. Regardless if they loved it or hated it, most people get the touchstone, while most of my white friends have no clue what that movie is. So I suppose it depends. However, I would argue your professor is incorrect that cult movies are a middle class, white phenomenon. I would argue they are an outsider phenomenon. The framing of cult hits in the media (which is dominated by white voices, particularly in criticism) may also contribute to this idea. (I’m also toying with post about “coming out” as a fan of color, which as Bao mentioned earlier, isn’t always a great experience. That may also contribute to the lack of visibility of fans of color in explorations of fandom.)

But that’s my two cents. Readers, what do you think?