Tuesday, May 1, 2012

So I guess you can be racist and blame it on “the audience”

I read this article, posted on CNN on April 27. 'Think Like A Man' and the legacy of 'Love Jones'  
It talks about a movie that came out recently, “Think Like A Man”, a love story in which the main characters are African-American.  (Maybe I’ve been living in a hole, because I haven’t heard of it.  Or any recent movies, now that I think about it.  Oh well.  At least it’s a hole with internet access.)  And the article talks about some other movies which centered around a love story with black characters, and how there’s uncertainty over whether that type of movie would be successful.

I’ve heard it asked before, “Is the American public ready for a movie where the majority of the cast, including the lead characters, is black?”  Seems like a dumb question.  If you’re going to be racist and not give black actors a chance, how can you blame that on “the audience”?

Haha, we would love to give all the actors a chance, judge them on their skills and not their race, but it’s the public, you know how racist people are, they won’t watch a movie with black actors.  There’s nothing we can do about it.  

Also, Americans can’t elect a woman to be president because you know how sexist other nations are- no one would take the US seriously.

Also, interracial marriage is bad because then their children would be biracial and get bullied- you know how mean middle-school children are.

And Scar would totally give the kingdom over to Simba, but the problem is the hyenas.  You see, they think I’m king.

Something just seems very wrong about this line of reasoning- go ahead and be racist and blame it on some other group.  So, it brings up these questions:

What if it’s true that movies where the lead actors are black would be less successful than ones with white actors?  Is that because the American public is racist, or is it because we don’t have a large enough sample size yet to really make a good comparison?  What if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: movie companies don’t want to put money into a movie with black characters, because they think it won’t be successful, so the budget is very low and a low-quality movie is made, so it’s not very successful?

If movie producers just want to make money, is that bad?  Everyone wants to make money.   But do they also have a responsibility to include minorities, for the sake of giving opportunities to the actors, and because of how movies influence culture?  If so, who has that responsibility?  You can say “the media” or “Hollywood” is sending these messages, but it’s not like “the media” or “Hollywood” is one united entity.  Maybe it’s more of a problem with the culture that those things exist in, not something you can blame specific people for.

Those are my questions; my goal is to give you (and me) a lot to think about.   Tell me what you think in the comments.


  1. (Two of two)

    However,I cannot inarguably extend the logic of indifference to race as far as gender (sorry, I liked your post!). Should the gender ratio be reversed in a successful franchise like Star Wars, I truly cannot foresee the audience reacting as well to the story. I can foresee a woman president, yet I cannot see some very popular fiction storylines retold with a reversed gender balance (I am desperately hoping that Twilight cannot be retold under any circumstances, and will be subject to something a la Farenheit 451). I do not quite grasp the extension of the gender argument as to whether or not other countries would take us seriously, as they do not vote in our elections, and if they have paid any attention to Kissinger they should be cowering in fear at our track record of capricious and incompetent foreign policy, especially considering our nuclear arsenal and majority share of global military spending.

    I can't respond to the interracial point, as it seems a little silly to me. If we have a half-African-American and half-Irish-American president, it hardly seems like biracial children are at a disadvantage except inasmuchas they are accepted by racial affinity organizations. If I recall correctly from the 2008 census data, biracial children are generally at an advantage, not a disadvantage.

    Sample size considerations are worth keeping in mind when it comes to establishing the truth of a proposition, yet it is absurd to assume that business personnel operate under the same criteria as mathematicians, scientists, and other persons concerned with sample sizes. They generally are interacting with idiosyncratic situations that they will never see again, and short-run success is their primary criterion (see Jackall's Moral Mazes for an excellent exposition of this consideration).

    The desire to profit is hardly reprehensible on an inherent basis, and there is no reason that producers should be subject to public interest considerations like representation of minorities absent government intervention. However, considering that virtually all artistic efforts are subject to government subsidy, producers have an obligation to conform to public policy if they wish to retain their tax benefits. Such an obligation would be much more easily understood and enforced so long as it was on a federal level, yet it seems plausible that states and municipalities would reciprocate so as to enforce common policies.

    Huh. Still not sure I think, though. I mostly like to argue.

    1. "Should the gender ratio be reversed in a successful franchise like Star Wars, I truly cannot foresee the audience reacting as well to the story"

      I think the main problem here is that there are gender differences in motivations, whether they be cultural or bred in. You cannot simply "reverse gender roles" and expect male/female motives to be believable for a female/male (especially in american cultural context).
      But that doesn't mean there can't be (or aren't) successful action/fantasy with primarily female protagonists/antagonists or successful emotional drama/love stories with a primary male cast. The stories are just motivated differently.

      "there is no reason that producers should be subject to public interest considerations like representation of minorities absent government intervention"

      I don't think Stephanie is suggesting that film makers represent minorities at the expense of money making - she's just suggesting that the film maker's assumption (that an all-not-white-cast won't sell in America) is false.
      I mean, there's some of evidence to support both hypothesis. All white casts have good prophets non-white-majority countries. Check out these grosses from Batman Begins:
      It made 12 Mill in Japan!

      Think Like a Man has currently grossed $61,723,479 with a $12 mill budget. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=thinklikeaman.htm

      But a lot of psych studies have shown people really identify better with people that look like them - which includes skin color, obvs.

    2. Thanks for your comments, random anonymous people!

  2. (One of two)

    First of all, I appreciate that weird is subject to correct spelling in your jurisdiction.

    As a doctoral candidate, I would like to preface my commentary with the admission that I cannot fairly comment on the availability of African-American specific films to the American people at large as a New Yorker.

    Frankly, I do not believe that the success of any movie depends on whether a majority of its actors, directors, or production personnel are of a given racial group. If a movie is published with a specific audience in mind, however, it isn't especially likely to do well outside that audience, as it will neither be written nor marketed to appeal outside of that audience. For example, compare the performance of the narrow audience-oriented "Like a Man" with the narrow audience-oriented "Waking Ned Devine." Both reach similar box office numbers, yet one clearly appeals more to African-American audiences and one appeals more to Irish-American audiences. Is either worthy of watershed remark? Not especially. Yet both are worth seeing and both reach similar levels of box office success (even incorporating inflation, you economics nerds, I checked).

    Whether the American public is ready or not, it hardly matters from an artistic perspective. One of the great purposes of art is to pose questions, no matter how uncomfortable. Simply saying that a majority-African-American cast won't be palatable to the general public is more an article of faith than a box-office reality so long as the main point of the film is not that the characters are African-American. Would Star Wars or Lord of the Rings be substantially less successful if the cast was predominantly African-American? I refuse to accept that bald assertion, as it was the story that gave either any worth, not the chromotagraphy of any actor nor the melanin content of the cast.

    From a business success perspective, I can theoretically understand the objection that the studios are merely playing to a racially preferential audience. If the audience is more willing to see the same story performed by Caucasian actors than African-American actors, there would be both a troubling problem with Americans in general and an excuse for the film industry. However, there would reasonably be a burden on the studios to establish the truth of this propostion, as the burden of any argument lies on the positive. I can see that some movies I hold in high regard (like Man on Fire and the Book of Eli) have not performed very well with an African-American protagonist, yet these are hardly average blockbuster movies marketed to a broad audience (both feature Denzel Washington as a slightly psychotic good guy, don't judge me). Frankly, I cannot think of a movie where the protagonist was African-American where the central premise of the movie disregarded that fact. Nor can I think of any movie that succeeded where the movie was premised on the fact that actor portraying the protagonist was of a certain group. It's a commercially nonsensenical premise, so the broad audience can hardly be blamed for the narrowness of the vision of film executives.

  3. You might be interested in the blog of science fiction author Steven Barnes. If only I could find a search box there, I'd point you directly to one of his posts about the stupid reasoning behind popular refusal to cast African-Americans in leading roles--but he writes about a lot of other interesting issues, too!