|South Park was right: Tyler Perry movies are bad, but Black people love them for the Black actors|
We finally got Hollywood in Blackface out (available on Amazon in book form here). If you enjoy this Web site, purchase a copy and help us send it up the list of Amazon best-sellers (the Kindle version reached #5 in movies yesterday). For a donation of $50 or more, we’ll send you a signed copy of both Hollywood in Blackface and SBPDL Year One (make it in the left-hand corner to PayPal).
Having just written Hollywood in Blackface, we at SBPDL are uniquely qualified to answer the pertinent question some researchers at the University of Indiana have asked: Do white people go see movies with predominately white actors?
Here is how the researchers answered the question:
In terms of box-office grosses, this is an extraordinary week for Hollywood: The No. 1 movie in America features a mixed-race cast.
Granted, that movie is Fast Five, the fifth installment of the Fast and Furious action series. Boston Globecalled these films “loud, ludicrous and visually incoherent,” but added that they are “the most progressive force in Hollywood today.” film critic Wesley Morris
As Morris noted, nonwhite actors played major roles in only two of the 30 top-grossing films of 2010. Studio executives believe white audiences prefer to see white characters, while black audiences want to see black characters, so they increasingly make films for each demographic.
Are they being too cynical? Newly published research suggests the answer is, sadly, no. But it also suggests this troubling tendency may largely be the effect of the studios’ all-too-effective marketing strategies.
In short, white moviegoers seem convinced that films with black stars are not made for them.
Andrew Weaver of the Indiana University Department of Telecommunications explored how the racial makeup of the cast impacts the preferences of white filmgoers. Writing in the Journal of Communication, he described an experiment in which 68 white college undergraduates read 12 fictional synopses of new romantic comedies.
“Web pages were created for each movie, and the race of the characters was manipulated to create six versions: an all-white cast; a 70 percent white cast with two white leads; a 70 percent white cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with two black leads; and an all-black cast,” he noted.
After looking over the pages, which featured small photos of the principal cast members, participants were asked a series of questions about their moviegoing habits, racial attitudes and desire to see each movie, either in a theater or at home.
“The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,” Weaver reports. “Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity.”
A separate study that used the same technique to assess non-romantic films produced different results. For the participants, 79 white undergraduates, the race of the actors did not influence their desire to see the film.
But a follow-up study by Weaver, which has yet to be published, suggests that result may be an outlier. In it, he used the same technique, but his participants were drawn from a more diverse group in terms of age and education. Specifically, he analyzed the responses of 150 white people between the ages of 18 and 69.
“White participants were more interested in seeing films with white actors than films with black actors,” he found. “This main effect was quite robust, occurring regardless of gender, age, previous movie viewing or the genre of the movie.
“Moreover, this effect was significant despite the very subtle race manipulation. The movie synopses, which were front and center on the page, were unaltered. The only manipulation was in the thumbnail pictures attached to the actors’ names.”
Evidence of continuing racist attitudes on the part of white Americans? Not necessarily. Participants were asked whether they perceived they were similar to the characters, and whether they considered the movie’s plot relevant to their own lives. Weaver found the race of the actors did not significantly affect their replies.
However, the actors’ race did have a big impact on another issue: Whether the participants felt they were part of the “intended audience” for the film. Their likelihood to agree decreased significantly when 70 percent (or 100 percent) of the cast was black, and they were less likely to express interest in seeing those films.
This suggests to Weaver that white reluctance to see films with black actors can be overcome. The perception that “this movie is not for me” could be changed “if more mainstream movies cast minorities,” he writes. If multiracial casts became the norm and movies were marketed to all demographics, the stigma could fade away.
This won’t happen anytime soon: Hollywood is famously risk-averse. Then again, the enormous success of Fast Five, which made more than $83 million domestically in its first weekend of release, may inspire other producers to take a risk on multiracial casts — perhaps even for films in which the real stars aren’t the cars.
We wrote about Fast Five already and the creation of the new paradigm for the action hero that Hollywood has cultivated over the past 25 years. We’ve written before about Black television shows that fail to garner an audience (why hasn’t there been a Black Bachelor on ABC?) such as Undercovers.
We even pointed out that Tyler Perry movies are filmed (and never screened for credits because, let’s face it, they are horrible) with the Black audience in mind. Recall the Netflix graph the New York Times posted: only majority Black area codes bother to rent the drivel Tyler Perry peddles as entertainment.
We haven’t yet pointed out that the Home and Garden Channel (HGTV) has gone out of its way to create a more diverse lineup, because — lo and behold — Black people like watching Black people instead of just white people:
The story notes that five years ago when they realized that their programming was not reflective of ethnic minorities, they made changing this a priority, since, HGTV has been more successful in several ways (sic) :
- 20% increase in primetime audience
- 50% increase in African American audiences
- One of the most popular shows among home-owning African Americans
- Higher than average viewership among Latino audiences
Adding diversity translates into Black people watching a program to see Black faces, because they desire seeing Black faces. The study cited above on whites wanting to see only whites in film makes the same point but attempts to chastise such viewing habits as racist.
When Blacks start watching just to see other Blacks remodel a home, it’s called “progress.”
There’s a reason Nicholas Sparks’ movies are targeted at white females, and there is a reason Black women find scenes in film distateful where Black male actors like Will Smith (think Men in Black, Hancock), Denzel Washington (think Pelican Brief) and others go after white women. These interracial love scenes when shown to Black audiences rarely test well:
“If the only time you show a balanced relationship is in an interracial relationship, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, it sends a message I’m not comfortable with.”
— “ER” star Eriq LaSalle on asking the series writers to terminate his character’s on-screen romance with a white female doctor played by Alex Kingston, 1999.
One of the perennials that always shows up on history-of-TV compilations is the clip from a 1968 musical special in which Petula Clark lightly rested her hand on Harry Belafonte’s arm as they sang a duet. That brief touch freaked out Chrysler so badly that it threatened to pull its sponsorship. The clip is always offered in a self-congratulatory “look how far we’ve come” spirit.
But the secret imperative behind most of Hollywood’s black and white star pairings remains: Look but don’t touch. We’ve all been trained by years of moviegoing to know that at some point in thrillers or romantic comedies — after the growing rapport, the looks that linger just a second longer than necessary — the male and female leads will get together. Except, that is, when the leading couple is interracial. You can wait until the last credit has rolled in “The Pelican Brief” or “Men in Black” or “Murder at 1600,” all movies in which there’s a definite chemistry between the black and white leads, and the only physical contact you’ll see is — perhaps — an affectionate but decidedly nonsexual embrace.
There are no complex sociological reasons for the taboo still attached to interracial romance in movies. It’s racism, pure and simple. Perhaps these attitudes are sometimes connected to an executive’s fear that audiences will be turned off by the sight of black and white together, but a decision that bows to racism must bear the mark of racism itself.
The difference today is that black actors and audiences may be just as turned off by miscegenation as white ones. We have come from ridiculing Chrysler’s horror over a white woman briefly touching a black man to seeing nothing wrong with “ER” star LaSalle’s implicit claim that his character’s affair with a white woman was an insult to black women. LaSalle, whose character had had unsuccessful relationships with black women in the past, “requested” that the show’s writers end the affair because “it sends a message I’m not comfortable with,” a message that this relationship could be a happy one. Presumably, LaSalle wouldn’t have had any troubles if his character’s relationship with Kingston’s had been rocky. In other words, it would have been acceptable if it had been depicted as being as doomed as bigots — the kind who deny being bigots, the “I’m just thinking of the children” variety — have always said interracial relationships must be.
When it comes to movies, the two films that best highlight the differences between the two eras are Stanley Kramer’s 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and Spike Lee’s 1991 “Jungle Fever.” Both terrible movies by terrible filmmakers willing to subordinate everything to their “message,” the films are nonetheless fairly accurate barometers of each era’s acceptable liberal sympathies. In Kramer’s film, the good, affluent parents played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy have to confront their own prejudices when their daughter turns up married to Sidney Poitier. In Lee’s film, Wesley Snipes is a married black architect who has an affair with his white assistant, played by Annabella Sciorra.
Lee pays lip service to the way each character is rejected by family and friends as a result of the affair, but he can’t hide his disgust with the relationship. (Sciorra has spoken in interviews of how she had to fight to give her character dimension.) The first time Snipes and Sciorra have sex is after hours at their office, on top of a drafting table. It’s a device that first popped up in ’80s movies like “Fatal Attraction”: When the filmmakers want to show disapproval of extramarital sex, they shoot it so that it looks physically uncomfortable. (Think of Michael Douglas screwing Glenn Close while she’s perched on the kitchen sink.) Lee’s message is a blatant version of the thought that hovers in Hepburn’s and Tracy’s minds in the Kramer film: “Wouldn’t you be happier with your own kind?”
We’ve reached a point where segregation has become an acceptable liberal position. (It isn’t conservative critics who praise Spike Lee movies.) But separatism is not the same thing as either self-determination or racial pride. I’d argue that pride finds its strongest expression in the midst of difference.
Not that every movie has to be scrupulously integrated. It would be great to see more movies with all-black casts, and the crossover success of the romantic comedy “The Best Man” last year or “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” in 1998 means we may get them. There’s a thrill in seeing black actors starring in the classic Hollywood genres blacks have traditionally been excluded from (and a thrill in seeing just how viable those forms can still be). The hugely entertaining “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” is, except for its welcome sexual forthrightness, like those dishy women’s pictures of the ’40s, full of gossip and luxe surroundings. But it’s a drag to see one character’s white husband used as an example of her snobbishness. “The Hurricane” has no qualms about exaggerating the role of three white Canadians in freeing Rubin Carter from prison, but it doesn’t even mention that in real life Carter had an affair with and eventually married one of them.
Presumably it’s OK to show Washington going to bed with a white woman (Milla Jovovich) in Lee’s “He Got Game” because her character is a whore. (That’s how all the white women, and many of the black women, are portrayed in this viciously misogynist film.) But even that was apparently enough, as was reported when the film was released, to cause some black female viewers to claim that Washington had betrayed them. (There were no objections to Washington’s bedding down with an Indian actress, Sarita Choudhury, for some truly sexy love scenes in Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala.”)
The only criterion that should be applied to movie pairings is: Do they work? Actors and directors are hamstrung if their exploration of human relationships is made to pass some test of sociological acceptability. Real-life relationships rarely conform to such standards; sexual attraction is chaos. Why should it seem otherwise in the movies?
Of course we should be able to see comedies and love stories and thrillers with two black stars. It’s insulting (to both races) to assume that a movie with black actors will be successful only if there’s also a white person in it. But whatever the justification, there are no good reasons to prevent moviemakers from pairing, say, Angela Bassett and Daniel Day-Lewis, Vanessa L. Williams and George Clooney, Snipes and Julia Roberts,Sigourney Weaver. Think of where racial separatism has gotten us in our movie past. There are no musicals that paired Lena Horne and Gene Kelly, no comedies in which Belafonte might have dallied with Marilyn Monroe, nothing to suggest what two fastidious actors like the young Poitier and the young Jane Fonda might have brought out in each other. Taye Diggs and Chloe Sevigny, Courtney B. Vance (one of the most underused good actors around) and Sigourney Weaver. Think of where racial separatism has gotten us in our movie past. There are no musicals that paired Lena Horne and Gene Kelly, no comedies in which Belafonte might have dallied with Marilyn Monroe, nothing to suggest what two fastidious actors like the young Poitier and the young Jane Fonda might have brought out in each other.
Black male stars have had an easier time of it, but — with the exception of Washington — mostly in action movie roles or playing sidekick roles. That’s not to slight the pleasure I’ve had watching Snipes or Ving Rhames in movies like “Blade” or “Mission: Impossible,” but I’d love to see them do other things. I can’t be the only moviegoer who loved the teddy-bear slyness Rhames brought to his role in “Out of Sight” and envisioned what he might do in comedy. Perhaps the best male performance of last year was Charles S. Dutton in “Cookie’s Fortune,” and yet he didn’t register in any of the year-end awards. Often, the pleasure of watching black actors is tinged with the realization that it may be a long time before you see that actor in another role as good.
Black and white pairings don’t seem to be a big deal in foreign movies, as David Thewlis and Thandie Newton showed in Bernardo Bertolucci’s great “Besieged,” one of the most potent recent movie love stories, and one of the most potent recent movies, period. Likewise with Beatrice Dalle and Alex Descas in “I Can’t Sleep,” directed by Claire Denis, whose films have frequently dealt with interracial issues. Perhaps those aren’t good examples because the issues of interracial love are part of those films’ subtext. The same tends to be true of American movies that feature interracial couples. The most intelligent were both made by Carl Franklin — “One False Move” and “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the latter featuring Washington’s best performance.
Te fact that a taboo still exists has led some directors to act as provocateurs. At the beginning of “Freeway,”“The Loss of Sexual Innocence.” (That provocation temporarily scuttled the movie at one point, when a white South African producer pulled out.) a deliciously twisted B-thriller that constantly challenges the assumptions we make based on appearance, Reese Witherspoon shares a big, wet, lazily hungry kiss with her black boyfriend (Bokeem Woodbine), and as director Matthew Bright focuses on the young lovers, you can feel his glee at potentially making some people uncomfortable.
That this rarely happens in real life (where, instead, the Black guy just leaves her pregnant and alone) is a reason Black women want to live vicariously through Tyler Perry, for their existence is more akin to Precious then it is to, say, Meet the Browns.
That most Black men agree with NFL player Albert Haynesworth (who said he doesn’t find Black women attractive) is not the kind of news Black women want to hear. A Tyler Perry movie satisfies their need to be desired whereas reality leaves them pumped and dumped.
Right now, pornography is America’s number one export to the world, and it’s an industry dominated by white, blond haired, blue eyed women. Males of all races purchase (or watch for free on streaming Web sites) America’s top export, and the Invisible Hand of the free market dictates that it is white women that are most desired in these pornographic videos.
That a study would be commissioned that finds out the obvious – white people enjoy seeing all-white casts – is a waste of money. That the people behind the study tried to paint this as racist, when Black people love seeing an all-Black cast (though Black males find no problem in seeing white casts, especially white women in movies) shows the true bias.
It’s Black women that protest films showcasing pairings of white women with Black males. And this is interesting, isn’t it, judging by the standards of most professional athletes and many Black actors, who appear to prefer white women over Black ones.
Look, if we at SBPDL had the opportunity to write a script, we would try and enter the amazing Blue Ocean market that Tyler Perry dominates. His films are horrible. Both South Park and The Boondocks agree (and most movie critics would, too, if Perry would release his films for pre-screening) that Perry is an untalented hack preying upon the desires of Black women everywhere that some fabled hope remains that they can live a nuclear family lifestyle. (Remember that 72 percent of all Black children are born out of wedlock.):
Conversely, Perry’s movies depict the same, tired “lonely woman meets desperate male darkhorse” theme. My goodness. Dr. Seuss has written more intricate storylines than Perry. And it’s really getting old.
Another Madea film?
Another sexually-confused male, dressed in drag, representing Black America?
WTH? Are you serious?
Look, the goal is not to bash Perry. Dude is prolific. Can’t hate. Just calling it like it is. The man has made ‘boo-coo’ bucks formulating such romantic fairy-tales as ‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman’ and ‘Madea’s Family Reunion’ to boost the sensitive egos of low self-esteem, lonely, hungry ‘Waiting to Exhale’ black women.
It’s sort of like the desolate, nerdy recluse who feels he’s completely incapable of attracting a fine woman. Rather than step-up his game, he decides to visit internet porn sites regularly just to jack off.
The point of all of this is simply this: Hollywood studios are in the business of making money and creating Black Fictional Images for the general consumer. Because white people don’t find Black women attractive or compelling (Halle Berry and perhaps Beyonce being the lone exceptions), Hollywood studios rarely cast them in leading roles.
Because Black women don’t like seeing Black male actors kissing or ogling over white women in films (something they see enough of in real life), Hollywood studios dare not offend their delicate sensibilities.
It’s our hope at SBPDL that someone comes along to knock Tyler Perry off his pedestal. His movies are horrible and an affront to cinema. That Black people still flock into theaters to see his tired stories off cross-dressing matriarchs saving the day says more about their peculiar tastes then anything else we can think of; perhaps its because they desire seeing only Black actors, something the researchers from Indiana University failed to even consider.