Don’t Sleep: Why So-Called “Black Films” Are Doing Better Than Ever

September 9, 2015  |  

Universal Pictures

How exactly do you define Black films?  Are they films that star a predominantly Black cast?  Must they be written by a Black scribe and feature issues pertaining to the Black experience? Are they helmed by Black directors?  Or are they a combination of all of the above?

According to Hollywood, Black films are very much a genre catered to Black people, seen by Black people and therefore not relatable or appealing to a non-Black audience.  They are also deemed difficult to market, both at home and overseas, despite evidence of the contrary.  Above all else, there’s still the thinking that Black films are subpar or niche.  Hence the surprise when a film like Straight Outta Compton does well at the box office, earning over $60 million in its first weekend and owning the #1 slot for weeks on end.  The N.W.A. biopic has been so successful that there’s already talk of a sequel titled Welcome to Death Row.

In typical Hollywood fashion, executives and studios jump on the bandwagon after something has proven financially viable.  Yet with regards to films with predominantly Black casts, low expectations are the norm and Hollywood on the whole fails to see the potential in them from the start.  It’s part of the reason why Beyond The Lights writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood is not a fan of the term “Black film.” On Twitter, she recently voiced her opinion about how her aforementioned movie is currently streaming on Netflix.  It was forced by Netflix’s “more like this” algorithms into a category that failed to associate it with similar romantic dramas.  Instead, Beyond The Lights was grouped with films featuring majority Black casts, movies that weren’t relatable to the love story and music elements expressed therewithin.

Instead of recognizing the universal human experience in so-called Black films, these films are also treated as one-off trends when they perform well, are written well, and are well acted.  Remember The Best Man Holiday?  The media went wild after the “race film” brought in beaucoup bucks.  The same can be said in television for shows like the newly-released The Carmichael Show or Empire, also deemed a wildly “surprising” success.  But films and television shows with majority Black casts aren’t a trend.  They reflect the diversity that exists in this country and offer storylines that are ironically more inclusive than what we normally see on our screens.  And audiences are clearly hungry for them.

This sort of trend thinking also explains why the industry has certain exceptions.  Films with Black leads supposedly don’t perform well overseas, but that’s not the case if they star Denzel Washington or Will Smith.  They are the un-Black Black actors.  Audiences worldwide can look past their color and see them as the characters they portray.  But if you ask Sony executives, it’s the foreign audiences that are racist.  There was fear that The Equalizer wouldn’t perform well in foreign countries because of Washington’s blackness, yet the film grossed $192 million worldwide.  About 47 percent of that money came from overseas (and execs thought this number would be higher if Denzel had not been cast.)  See the conundrum?  Nobody knows anything.  The Hollywood film industry will continue to be surprised if they put such little faith and support in films with Black leads or majority Black casts.

Continuing with the built-in assumptions about films with Black casts, there’s an assumption that these films are exclusively about race.  And apparently, people don’t want to see race portrayed on film unless, of course, the diegesis pertains to a certain era.  It seems that films about slavery and the Civil Rights movement have less difficulty being greenlit and are expected to be supported by audiences once released.  It’s a sentiment that Actor David Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Ava DuVernay-directed film Selma, shared in an interview at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. “Generally speaking,” said Oyelowo, “we as Black people have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being in the center of our own narrative, driving it forward.”  Which might explain why it took decades to get a feature film about Dr. King made.  And if you remember, Oyelowo’s performance in Selma was not nominated for an Oscar.  DuVernay did not receive a nomination either for Best Director, despite the fact that her film was nominated for Best Picture.  And there are numerous examples from recent years (12 Years a Slave, The Help, etc.) that support Oyelowo’s comments.  Sometimes Blackness is deemed more acceptable on film if our experiences as Black people are limited to the periods in history, or stereotypes for that matter, that non-Blacks equate with us.  Films that safely distance us from our sordid past are heralded as reminders of how far we’ve come.

Clearly, there’s not only a hunger but a lasting need for content with leads and casts who happen to be Black.  There are so many untold stories about historical and fictional characters alike that have yet to grace our screens.  For an industry that spends millions on research and marketing alone, you would think that the movie industry would be a lot more “woke” and less surprised when so-called “Black films” exceed their limited perceptions and expectations. The lesson?  Stop underestimating audiences and the content with Black leads and majority Black casts.

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