Chris Rock’s “Top Five”: Boxed In Versus Breaking Out At The Box Office

December 19, 2014  |  

Chris Rock’s latest movie, Top Five, opened last weekend in 979 theaters, amassing $7.2 million dollars. It did not beat Christian Bale’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which was the number one film, pulling in $24.5 million for the same weekend. But Top Five emerged as the number four movie in America, a significant feat for Rock, who is the movie’s director, writer, as well as leading man. These numbers indicate the comedian’s potential to be a Woody Allen-esque figure, of sorts, for African-American moviegoers, following in the footsteps of other African-American silver screen savants like Robert Townsend and Spike Lee.

In the past decade there have been few intelligent, forward-thinking comedies starring, directed, and/or written by an African-American male or female. This year we were treated to Justin Simien’s Dear White People, which has been nominated for NAACP Image and Film Independent Spirit awards, among others.

It often appears that “thinking man” comedies are created by the Jason Reitmans and Julie Delpys of the world, whereas African-Americans are treated to movies like Soul Plane and Norbit. There is nothing wrong with slapstick comedy or the Tyler Perry Madea movies that have made him a millionaire. Still, the contemporary mammie, coon, and buck roles that African Americans have sought to diminish in the filmmaking landscape throughout history carry on and present themselves today. Perry’s last Madea movie, Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, grossed a total of $52,543,354 at the box office. With numbers like that, Hollywood would be less concerned about the praise of critics, especially with A Madea Christmas being the latest installment of a mile long string of Madea flicks produced over the years.

Chris Rock is well aware of how Hollywood works and how the divide between White and Black Hollywood translates and constructs box office hits and misses. “It’s a White industry. Just as the NBA is a Black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.  African Americans in Hollywood, no matter what position, are at the mercy of stereotyping and racial groupthink, which affects the types of films they are expected to consume and generate.

To further illustrate this point, look toward the existing Sony hacking scandal, the gift that just keeps on giving. Even the racial biases of renowned producer Scott Rudin and chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Amy Pascal, were revealed in a spread of email messages between the two “discussing” Obama’s movie preferences. “Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” wrote Pascal. “12 YEARS”, replied Rudin. “Or the butler. Or think like a man?” Pascal asked. “Ride-along. I bet he likes Kevin Hart.”, Rudin then stated. (For the record, Obama’s favorite movie of 2014 is “Boyhood”, starring Ethan Hawke.) The reception for Chris Rock’s Top Five at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and the studio bidding war to acquire the film proves that a comedy of this ilk is wanted and that a good story knows no color lines.

Top Five won’t be able to eradicate the ghettoization of black films within the Hollywood movie system, and we are not trying to imply that it can. Instead, we can infer that Rock’s newest movie is another small step in the direction of presenting Black males who are funny without wearing a dress or being overtly hammy. Critics talk, but money talks louder. Smart businesspeople, such as Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst for BoxOffice.com, know that a movie’s success should not be solely evaluated by its opening weekend numbers.

“You can’t judge a movie like ‘Exodus’ or ‘Top Five’ based on their opening weekends. There’s a lot of time between Christmas and New Year’s for a film to pop, and compared to last year, there aren’t as many adult-skewing titles,” he said. A film like Top Five, which is being hailed as one of Chris Rock’s finest in years, is not in a bad position opening at number four, having being up against present blockbusters and animated movies like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1n and Exodus: Gods and Kings. (It cost $10 million to make and was bought by Paramount Pictures for $12.5 million.)

What remains to be seen is its global appeal, cumulative sum totals of ticket sales over the holiday season and beyond, and future studio support for intelligent comedies led by African-American talent.

However, let us keep in mind that Chris Rock has gained the respect of many industry tastemakers and gatekeepers with Top Five and this can only inspire him and other comedians like him to keep keepin’ on. On the whole, African-American filmmakers should be mindful that a balance of great storytelling and Hollywood industry acumen is fundamental. Like Rock and his film Top Five, showing film industry power executives that breaking out of the creativity box is a risk worth taking to the box office.

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