By Guest Contributors Zach Stafford and Nico Lang
Over the years, people of color have had the hardest time breaking into the ‘biz’ or just simply being recognized for the work that they have done on the silver screen.
It was in 1939 that the first African American person–Hattie McDaniel–won an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind. It took 30 years for another African American person to win again: Sidney Poitier won Best Actor in a leading role for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, a film that tackles racial divides and interracial dating at the onslaught of integration. But how much have we integrated since then?
In their 2011 New York Times article, “Hollywood’s Whiteout,” staff film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott wrote, “[Race] in American cinema has rarely been a matter of simple step-by-step progress. It has more often proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs, and periods of intense argument followed by uncomfortable silence.” Their article came out in response to the 2010 Academy Awards where zero African Americans were nominated, which struck many as peculiar within this Obama Era where ideals around post-racism circulated from sea to shining sea.
The lack of people of color at the Academy Awards was a stark reminder that Hollywood was still very much divided. Let’s play a game: Can you name a prominent black actor under 30? Someone that, if you walked up to a random person on the street, they would know who you are talking about? Didn’t think so.
Beyond just the actors, black films (or what many in Hollywood call “movies for urban markets”) aren’t being recognized at the same level as their mainstream counterparts, whether at awards ceremonies or the box office. Whenever a film about black people does well, it’s considered a “surprise hit.” In the past few decades, movies like The Blind Side, The Help, Driving Miss Daisy and Remember the Titans all explicitly dealt with a “black” subject matter and made a killing at the box office. All four grossed over $100 million, the benchmark for domestic success in Hollywood, and three got nominated for Best Picture. Driving Miss Daisy even won, though few expected it to. All of these movies feature both white and black actors sharing the screen in prominent roles, although each was directed by a white person.
Despite being critically dismissed, The Blind Side was nominated as “the people’s movie” for the 2010 Academy Awards. Like The Help, many pushed us to see this as a token for the many black films (like Middle of Nowhere and Pariah) that received no recognition in recent years. The Blind Side was about a poor African-American student who is taken in by a white family and later becomes a pro athlete. This trope echoed a larger problem in Hollywood: they still struggled to leave behind the “magic Negro” paradigm–the idea, epitomized by Driving Miss Daisy, that black characters exist solely to teach valuable lessons to white characters.
Without being a good or honest representation of race in America, The Blind Side argues for the power of integration at the box office. It became the biggest sports movie in history by appealing to a wide variety of demographics, including whites, blacks, women, faith-based audiences, football lovers, and Sandra Bullock fans. Django Unchained became Quentin Tarantino’s highest-grossing film by similarly reaching out to a broader audience–while also proving you could tell unpleasant stories about racism instead of nice, moral lessons about Sassy White Saviors. It’s a baby step, as it’s still by a white filmmaker, but an important one.
A Nielsen report from 2009–over four years ago–argued for the power of convergence. When looking at entertainmnent viewership habits, they called African-Americans a “high-growth, high-potential audience.” According to Nielsen, so-called urban markets “embracing and using the newest technologies at rates that exceed the national average,” including high-definition television and movies-on-demand. Shows that tap into this demographic demand have succeeded. Although networks like low-cost, high-profit reality shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, they pull in audiences not because of their profit model but their relative inclusivity. These shows pick contestants with diversity in mind, attracting many demographics of viewership.
That same report also argues that viewership is converging as less options are available to specifically black audiences viewers outside of BET, VH1, or Tyler Perry’s programs. Fox wants edgy young people now. UPN and WB merged into one network, the CW, which ditched their “urban” programming in favor of teen dramas (e.g. Gossip Girl) and genre shows for white girls, like The Vampire Diaries and Beauty and the Beast. Because of the disappearance of black-marketed network shows, lists of the top 20 programs for white and black audiences are mostly the same. Shows that can speak to diversity are more likely to succeed in that market. Narrow shows will struggle.
American Idol has been the number one show for a decade, because it speaks to the changing demographics of America. For better or worse, it tries to be about who we are now, our dreams, and how they often fail. The Voice similarly casts its judges to pull in different demographics: Latinos, country listeners, “urban” markets, and soccer moms who love Adam Levine. It’s the hottest new show on TV.
So, why do we continue to be surprised when diversity succeeds?
This week the United States celebrated the 66th anniversary of the baseball major leagues being desegregated, and Hollywood released the movie 42 to coincide. Directed by white filmmaker Brian Helgeland, 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American man to play on a major league team, the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was essential in the desegregation of the league and his story needs to be told not just for the people of color who want to commemorate him, but the whites who need to hear his message of courage. We all benefit from listening to each other’s histories. We might stop repeating their mistakes.
With little marketing, 42 grossed $27.3 million in its opening weekend, a surprise hit that few in the industry saw coming. Insiders predicted it would pull in around $15 million in its opening weekend, and the film doubled predictions. Currently it has the largest opening weekend gross of any baseball movie in history, besting The Benchwarmers and Moneyball by nearly $10 million. Baseball movies are historically cursed at the box office, and only one has ever grossed over $100 million: A League of their Own, which starred mostly women. As another race movie with an A+ Cinemascore, 42 will easily best that movie to become the highest-grossing baseball film of all time.
What makes 42 different? Like American Idol, it’s the audience.
Sports movies typically pull in white audiences, and baseball movies are no exception, as they usually tell white stories. Industry classics like Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, and The Natural were all made by and starred white people, so white people showed up. However, the audience breakdown for 42 during opening weekend was decidedly mixed. 59% were over the age of 35, and 52% were female. The top ten highest-grossing theatres in which the film played were all located in “urban” markets, places where black and Latino viewers are seen as likely to go.
42 is quietly making a killing during a slow box office year, so quietly that many moviegoers aren’t even aware that it’s out.
Tyler Perry’s films have the same visibility problem. Perry reaches the same demographics–targeting older, female African-American audiences. Perry’s films in the recent years have become the top performers this urban market as well and are received with positivity from many people in this market, who make up a built-in audience for his films. Black audiences turn out for Tyler Perry, despite Perry’s constant critical savaging.
Despite poor reviews, Temptation and Madea’s Witness Protection have earned A- Cinemascores and went onto be “surprise” box office successes. Why the surprise? Nine Tyler Perry films have had opening weekends where they grossed over $20 million, joining a club of directors that only include Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Perry’s films are great example of just how much black audiences are coming out to the movies while other films struggle for a financial foothold. When Why Did I Get Married? premiered in 2007, it earned more than Michael Clayton and Elizabeth: The Golden Age combined. These films starred all white characters.
What makes this worth noting?
According to Perry’s distributor, Lions Gate Films, around 90 percent of the audience for Why Did I Get Married? was African American, a film almost universally black cast. This is important to consider. Tyler Perry’s films often boast terrible week-to-week multipliers, as they have a hard time pulling in audiences outside of the demographic “usual suspects.” Films like Madea Goes to Jail and Madea’s Big Happy Family made little more than twice their opening weekends, and recent non-Madea films have underperformed. Good Deeds and Alex Cross were his lowest-grossing efforts ever.
Sad as it may be, many credit the larger success of Temptation to the presence of Kim Kardashian, a sign that Tyler Perry is attempting to pull in audiences who wouldn’t normally attend a Tyler Perry film. Like Madea’s Witness Protection, which co-starred Denise Richards and Eugene Levy, Temptation has been showing stronger week-to-week holds, the legs Tyler Perry’s films so often lack. Perry has received pressure from producers for years to diversify his casts, and Temptation’s soon-to-be $20 million boost in sales over Good Deeds is a solid testament to that assertion.
Like Temptation, the success of 42 serves as evidence that black people don’t have to be pushed to the side for a film to perform at the box office. Black people can be front and center, having conversations and relationships that have nothing to do with white people. In 42, it’s not only refreshing that Jackie Robinson is the lead. It’s that he has his own friendships, relationships, and networks, instead of being the only black person allowed in the picture. The movie co-stars Harrison Ford, but rather than Ford saving him, 42 is about how Jackie Robinson saved himself, struggling to maintain his dignity in an oppressive system–one that still haunts us today.
Jackie Robinson brought together blacks and whites to cheer for him, and by appealing to different markets, 42 proved Hollywood can achieve the same thing. Diversity isn’t not a surprise; it’s smart business. The Brooklyn Dodgers figured that out 66 years ago, and black filmmakers have been telling us that for years.
The money is talking. It’s time Hollywood listens.