The Life of Films: Black People Watched “Traitor”! Sophisticated Urbanites Heart “Milk”!

By Guest Contributor AJ Christian, originally published at Televisual

The New York Times has an interesting interactive feature out that maps the top 50 rentals for 2009 based on the Netflix queues from a dozen US cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Milwaukee, Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Altanta, Seattle and Denver. The list is a bit skewed because these are all fairly cosmopolitan areas — Benjamin Button and Changeling are at the top of the list — though that probably reflects what I assume is Netflix’s popularity in urban and suburban communities to begin with.

The list reminds us films have long lives. The press focuses almost solely on opening weekend box office returns and forgets films go to the rental market, DVD sales, pay-cable and OnDemand. Often these venues are great for films that couldn’t get people in theaters but are nevertheless intriguing or enjoyable. Movies by and about minorities sometimes can find audiences unwilling to shell out $6-$12+ for ticket (the gay film market has operated for years on this assumption).

I was surprised to see Traitor on the list — in the middle, but still before many popular Hollywood films. Traitor, a Don Cheadle-starrer about an alleged terrorist who may or may not secretly be working for the United States, made a paltry $27 million in theaters, just $23M in the U.S. Don Cheadle doesn’t have the Box Office pull of a Will Smith or Denzel Washington, despite his role in the Ocean’s Eleven films. Yet in the rental market, it seems black communities have taken a small liking to the film. The New York Times‘ map has it markedly popular in Atlanta — with a strong presence in the middle class/Morehouse area inside the perimeter — in D.C. and in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy in New York.

I was surprised how clearly along cultural lines some films feel. Lakeview Terrace, which got little love from critics while doing okay in theaters, was similarly popular in the same neighborhoods as Traitor (slightly more popular). In these areas, Tyler Perry films The Family That Preys and Madea Goes to Jail as well as Not Easily Broken, Obsessed, Cadillac Records The Soloist were disproportionately popular in black neighborhoods.

Films like Milk, on the other hand, had wider audiences in these urban areas. Milk made a respectable but hardly amazing $54 million at the box office (Brokeback Mountain made nearly $200 million). Predictably, neighborhoods like Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and Midtown in Atlanta took to Milk, but these liberal cities liked it overall: it’s 13th on the list.

Take a look at the Times feature. Some things will surprise, some won’t. Renee Zellweger’s mediocre New in Town played well in Minneapolis! For good reason: the film is about an east coast city gal who has to move to rural Minnesota. Westerns like Appaloosa hit a niche in the parts of Los Angeles several hours outside the city (I’ve been there; it feels like the Wild West) and in Dallas. Bourgeois areas like Berkeley, Manhattan and its suburbs ate up art-house gems like I’ve Loved You For So Long and Rachel Getting Married.

As a researcher, I love it when people act against stereotype or try to formulate interesting, resistant identities. But sometimes it’s very clear we act exactly as Hollywood predicts, gay people watch gay movies and urban intellectuals flock to gritty art-house realism. C’est la vie.