Wed November 20, 2013
When Hollywood Movies Get 'Race-Themed' Into The Same Box
Originally published on Tue November 19, 2013 6:26 pm
That wouldn't have surprised anyone on social media or who heard the peals of delight that greeted the trailers for Holiday over the summer.
"It was fair to think this film — where 87% of the audience was African American — would open in the high teens," an executive from Universal, which produced Holiday, told the L.A. Times. "I would never have thought in my most non-lucid moment to expect this — the picture only cost $17 million."
Our play-cousin Linda Holmes wrote that this shock from Hollywood types is a regular occurrence and greets every movie starring people of color that opens big. Treating every such film this way "fluke-ifies" them, she says.
"The real story out of this film, and Think Like A Man (which also 'overperformed'), and The Butler, and so forth, could just as easily be framed as, "Analysts once again underestimate the box-office appeal of a movie about black people." Maybe it's a coincidence and maybe it isn't, but framing the film's performance as the outlier doesn't get at whether there's something about tracking and prediction and audience analysis that's missing something."
There's the other argument that attends each similar hit, in which someone suggests that the success of this particular movie will fundamentally change Hollywood's approach to casting, producing and marketing movies full of people of color. The same thing happened with Instructions Not Included, another "surprise hit" from the summer that featured several Latino leads. It cost $5 million to make but has earned $44 million at the box office since its release.
The box office tallies for these movies supercede every other conversation about them. When we're talking about a movie like Holiday, with a black cast, the conversations aren't about the particular character dynamics or their direction. It's about what the film augurs for the viability of movies filled with black folks. This framing instills a real and weird anxiety for filmgoers: If this movie bombs, Hollywood will be even more averse to backing movies with people of color! How can I not support this movie since the future of black/Latin/Asian-American movies depends on it?
And so films as thematically and tonally different as Holiday or The Butler or 12 Years a Slave get flattened into this one defining attribute. They're not rom-coms or historical dramas or biopics. They're "black movies."
Over the weekend, USA Today inadvertently gave us a name for this phenomenon when it sent out this unfortunately worded tweet about Holiday's box office.
Holiday, a straight-ahead romantic comedy, is apparently a movie about "race" because it ain't about white folks. Alyssa Rosenberg lists a bunch of recent movies featuring white people that accurately could be described as being "race-themed" — Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, the buddy cop-comedy The Heat — movies about race that aren't advertised or even thought of as such.
For our purposes, "race-theming" is something else altogether. It's when someone takes a movie with people of color and considers it primarily through that lens. When any movie featuring a predominantly brown cast is reduced to Brown People: The Movie, that's race-theming.
And race-theming might not even require a mostly brown cast. Will Smith, obviously one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, said producers were skittish about casting him opposite a black female lead in his 2005 romantic comedy Hitch because they were worried it would have become a "black film" with a "narrower" audience.
"There's sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don't want to see it," Smith told a British paper when he was doing press for the film.
The paradox is that even though we're still lumping these movies together, there's more diversity in movies about black people than ever before. (Admittedly, that's a pretty low bar to clear.) There's enough space in the movie landscape for all kinds of films with black casts — mainstream, star-studded crowd-pleasers like The Butler, slow-burn indies like Middle of Nowhere, and serious historical dramas like Mandela. There's even room for fully realized black antiheroes now (or at least, the increasingly unsympathetic characters that Denzel Washington has taken to playing lately, a la Flight).
The question used to determine whether these movies would get made was whether white folks would go see a movie with brown people in the lead roles. But more and more, that question is beside the point. Holiday made back nearly twice its budget in just its first three days. Well, yeah. We've already firmly established that you don't need an audience of "more than" brown people for a movie to be a hit. We need to get to a place where a cast filled with people of color is not a movie's defining trait. (It's a point made brilliantly by this jokey Onion review of 12 Years a Slave.)
Any race-themed movie will always be awkwardly saddled by the weight of representing entire swaths of cultural experiences. That's a silly, impossible burden for a movie like Holiday to shoulder. Let our fizzy rom-coms be fizzy rom-coms and evaluate them on those terms.