Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Cinematic Colour Cross-Overs

I'm sure I haven't read a fluffier, feel-good piece in a long time. Today, in the Washington Post was this Teletubby article that cites increasing white attendance at 'coloured people's' movies as evidence of dissolving cultural barriers.

Laughs That Track Across the Color Line If standup comedy has gone from crossover country to a sadly Balkanized federation of demographic niches, a funny -- and encouraging -- thing is happening with comedy at the movies. When I started writing movie reviews 10 years ago, I noticed something strange at the multiplex. Although African Americans routinely flocked to the most execrable movies by, about and starring white people, it was impossible to get white viewers to see wonderful movies by, about and starring black people. But, over the past few years at least, it looks like that is finally changing, as movies that once would have been marketed only to blacks have found purchase beyond their presumptive audience. It was "Waiting to Exhale" that first clued me in. The romantic comedy, starring Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Lela Rochon and Loretta Devine, was a chick flick of the first order, not brain food exactly, but a delicious little confection featuring some of Hollywood's most watchable actors and actresses. With its soapy romance, attractive cast and locales and happy endings, it easily could have appealed to fans of "While You Were Sleeping," the Sandra Bullock rom-com that also opened that year. And yet, "Sleeping" grossed more than $80 million, while "Waiting to Exhale" earned just more than $65 million -- a figure that surely would have rivaled "While You Were Sleeping" had white women seen "Exhale" as "their" movie. Jump-cut to this year, when the following titles were among the top movies in the nation: "Hitch," "The Pacifier," "Are We There Yet?" and "Guess Who." All of them are comedies, starring either African Americans or, in the case of Vin Diesel, an actor of ambiguous ethnic identity. It just might be that, however segregated live comedy has become, at the movies we're at least getting together and laughing together. It hasn't always been thus. For every hit starring Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy -- black comedians whose work was firmly rooted in the black experience even as it transcended race -- there have been movies such as "Soul Food," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "Love and Basketball." Good romantic comedies all, and none with the diverse audience it deserved. Action movies and thrillers have long been doing well with stars such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson. But comedies starring black actors and, most important, set in the black community have been relatively ghettoized until a few years ago, when two movies broke out to become big crossover hits. "Barbershop," starring Ice Cube and an ensemble of widely respected black actors, and "Drumline," a terrific first-time movie about marching bands in historically black colleges, both garnered integrated audiences that, according to their studios, were 40 percent "non-black." Compared with the reported 10 percent non-black audience for "Exhale," that's progress. And, in a year when Jamie Foxx took home the Oscar for Best Actor, when the Oscars featured a record number of black nominees and when actors such as Will Smith, Ice Cube and Bernie Mac are packing 'em in, it looks like not just progress but a sea change may be afoot. "There's definitely a renaissance going on," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box office tracking firm in Los Angeles. "But films like 'Are We There Yet?' and 'Hitch' are universal in their appeal and themes, and that's why they've done so well. "They have the same constraints as any other movie," Dergarabedian continues. "They have to be well-marketed, they have to have some kind of buzz, they have to be movies that are good. . . . I think we're living in a meritocracy more than ever in terms of the work and how audiences respond to these films." His point is backed up by the fact that the so-so "Beauty Shop," starring Queen Latifah, hasn't done nearly as well as its funnier "Barbershop" predecessors. And "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" seems to have become the year's biggest sleeper hit, mainly on the strength of its appeal to black audiences familiar with the plays on which it is based. Still, Dergarabedian agrees that something of a perfect storm of marketing, buzz and quality is brewing. "It may be that all these different factors have come together and have hit right here and right now," he says. "And it's been made obvious with all these No. 1 films starring African American actors. Seemingly the sky's the limit as far as the appeal of these actors; there are no boundaries now." It looks like studios may finally be getting the message that it's time to get their marketing up to speed with a pop culture steeped in hip-hop and Tiger Woods. With luck, comedy represents merely the first, and maybe the easiest, frontier of a larger, and longer-term, crossover revolution.
How demoralizing to read that the increasing tokenism of people of colour in Hollywood is so blatantly and unabashedly defended, no, promoted, as some sort of solution to racial strife. First of all, the reviewer notes that people of colour were "flocking" (in her words) to movies starring white people roughly 10 years ago, while whites were avoiding movies starring people of colour -- the reason is simple: there simply weren't and still aren't many films that cater to the core culture of people of colour. I go to white movies because I don't have an alternative -- the last time a mainstream movie actually dealt with my community as a real identity was over a year ago with a stupid comedy about two guys and a burger joint, and the racial politics ramifications of that film were already questionable, since it was made by a white guy for white peopple all the while galvanizing the highly dedicated Asian American activists into attending by ostensibly masquerading the film as a huge step forward for APIA actors, all the while sucking their wallets dry. Why didn't whites go to 'coloured' films? Just because of that reason -- films starring 'coloured folk' were marketed as such and whites never like feeling out of place. When you're in the majority, the feeling of being divorced from the majority culture is actually bizarre and unsettling, rather than everyday for the vast majority of people of colour. There was a huge FUBU mentality with films like 'Soul Food', and frankly, there's something to be said for rebelling against a Hollywood mainstream industry and making a film specifically for your own community. In that way, films like Waiting to Exhale were better off without whites trying to appropriate them for themselves. It's the idea of taking control of our own racial destinies, and recognizing ourselves as distinct from monolithic whiteness, and catering to those differences with no thought to entertaining the Caucasian masses. Whether you agree or disagree with this, there is a disconnect when the reviewer then cites the popularity of movies like 'The Pacifier' and 'Hitch' as evidence for those disintegrating cultural barriers. How racist of the reviewer to imagine that a film merely starring a person of colour (or, as an insult to Vin Diesel, a person of "ambiguous ethnic identity") is enough to categorically place a film into the 'colourized' category. Paul Dergarabedian is correct in saying that those films have "universal appeal" -- in that it's all a euphemism for saying that the films are culturally white and starring a 'white' character dipped in very, very light chocolate. What was it, I wonder, about Hitch that was supposed to have made it a film for African Americans, other than Will Smith's ethnicity, and exactly what about the rich white suburban setting of 'The Pacifier' was to appeal to people of colour? 'Guess Who?' is another film that, though starring a black family, is not intended for black audiences specifically, but was created and marketed as black buffoonery for a white crowd. After all, from every trailer you've ever seen, every poster ever posted, every radio spot ever aired, the audience is meant to sympathize with Kutcher, not Mac. Are audiences becoming more tolerant of seeing a person of colour on screen? Absolutely. Fifty years ago, producers were resorting to white actors in make-up to depict a person of colour in a movie. But, that doesn't mean that a bunch of white people laughing at (and yes, say at with deliberation) Ice Cube in Barbershop means that they aren't still hiding some pointed white sheets in their bedroom closet.


Blogger phillyjay said...

Reading that article, I was thinking to myself, if any of those moives that appeal to white audiences had more of a black focus, less white people would actually watch it.White audiences in general don't watch these kind of movies.I don't know if it's because they can't relate or what.

I can count on my hand the amount of bigtime movies I have seen with a majority black, hispanic or espeically asian.That's not even counting the ones full of stereotypes.But I have seen tons of movies where white people are the majority with countless different types of characters.

One could however say you should focus on the content of the movies, rather then the color of the actors and leave race out of it.What do you think of that kind of argument Jen?

4/27/2005 07:56:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

"One could however say you should focus on the content of the movies, rather then the color of the actors and leave race out of it."

I think that would be a very wonderful way to view movies, but I think it's impractical. Race is a visual identifier that doesn't wash off -- Will Smith's character in Hitch wasn't through content racialized in any way, but the mere fact of Will Smith's melanin made the film "racial". Because race is one of those identifiers people recognize immediately only through visual data, moviegoers can't help but see race in films -- it's the way we're hardwired to see the world.

And as another counter-argument, sometimes having race in films can be a positive. I think films like Better Luck Tomorrow and Robot Stories, two powerful contemporary Asian American films, are great specifically because they use the inescapable racial identities of the actors and a great storyline to explore issues within the APIA community, as a means of bringing aspects of our identity to the big screen.

If film is meant to connect with the audience and be a lens for viewing our own lives, than we have to be able to recognize the differences within reality to effectively reflect it on-screen. Movies will only be colourblind when the audience is.

4/28/2005 09:52:00 AM  

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