Nothing captures the attention of Hollywood bean counters like money and so there will, no doubt, be much talk about the success of Think Like A Man over the coming weeks. I mean, look at it: A low budget film without a single proven movie star not only opened in the number one position, it did so by knocking The Hunger Games out of that spot and posting numbers more than double what its own distributor was projecting / hoping for. That's remarkable.
The conversation about how this happened has already started and - no real surprise - most of it so far centers around a quality ad campaign and a good job done by the distributor. It's no surprise because these are the people in power and they always want to take credit for successes while shoving off failures on other forces.
But, while taking nothing away from the marketers and execs who put this film out there, I want to suggest there's a different factor that's driving this film. A much more obvious one, which you would think would make it that much easier to capitalize on but which - by its very nature - is one that Hollywood would most likely prefer to sweep under the rug because acknowledging it would mean acknowledging some unsavory things about their dominant business practices.
Think Like A Man is succeeding because it's black.
Let me be very clear what I am not suggesting with that statement. I am not saying that America's black population wants to be pandered to. And I am certainly not suggesting that they'll turn out en masse simply because there is a black actor in a film. If Think Like A Man was not also good and did not also star some legitimately funny people nobody would care about it at all, regardless of race. But what I very definitely do mean is that Hollywood has neglected and ignored the minority populations of America to such a shocking degree in the past decades that when something good finally wends its way through the system they will turn out en masse to support it.
Consider this: Last year's summer blockbuster season carried on for months without a single actor of color - of ANY color - appearing on the marquee of ANY film for the entire season. Hollywood will argue that they do not cast black leads because there are so few black leads capable of 'opening' a film. I counter that there are so few viable black leads because none are ever given the chance to develop. Bizarrely, the most racially diverse summer blockbuster of 2011 was the one that actually had legitimate reason to cast dominantly white. That was Thor, in which Kenneth Branagh cast Idris Elba and Tadanobu Asano as Norse gods. And let's be honest: When a movie about Norse gods is the most racially diverse of the major blockbusters released in a year then something is severely wrong with the way the industry is operating.
It was not always this way. Look back to the 1980s. Films of all types - and particularly films aimed at mass audiences - made a point of casting across multiple races. Eddie Murphy vehicles like 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop set the template and the approach was literally everywhere. Why? Because producers understood something that they have seemingly forgotten since: If you want to appeal to a mass audience the simplest first step to doing so is making sure all sectors of the audience have someone to identify with.
People go to the movies - at least the movies produced as mass entertainments - for a bit of escapism. For a bit of fantasy. And a key element in being able to carry out that escape is seeing someone on the big screen who you can easily identify with, whose shoes you can step into. If you're a white male, that's fine. There are plenty of options to choose from. But if you're black, what have you got? Not much. And god forbid you're Asian or Hispanic. In the producer's quest for the 'four quadrant' movie Hollywood has become increasingly homogeneous, somehow completely missing the fact that an enormous percentage of the country is not white and that those people would like to have some stars of their own as well, thanks.
That the decisions in Hollywood are made dominantly by white men is far from a new phenomenon. It's been that way from the beginning. It's something that should change and needs to change, though realistically any shifts on that front will be a long time coming. Hell, even getting away from the producing and executive ranks, the directors are overwhelmingly white men. I mean, name a mainstream black director outside of the Hughes Brothers. Or an Asian other than Justin Lin. Or any Hispanics at all. They're all shockingly short lists and addressing that - cultivating talents that can make their way up through the system - is going to be a matter of years, not days. But the casting issue is one that could, and should, be addressed immediately. It would be nice to think Hollywood would do so for moral reasons but, if not, they should at least do so for business ones. There are non-white audiences that want to be served and represented on screen and the producer that remembers this will be rewarded. Representative casting is good business, plain and simple. Just ask the producers behind Think Like A Man.
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