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It is a common saying in Hollywood that ‘black doesn’t travel,’ that is to say, that ‘black’ films don’t do well in international markets. With 60% of revenue coming from outside the U.S., one has to wonder how many films may have been snubbed because of this. But is it true? Maybe at one point, but the present cultural and economic climate is forcing a reevaluation of the longstanding myth.
The first thing we have to ask is what makes a film “black?” Is it a black cast? Elements of black culture? This is a blurry distinction getting blurrier.
Take Will Smith. Smith, among several prominent black actors, is explicitly excluded from the idea that “black doesn’t travel.” The Pursuit of Happyness, with a predominantly black cast and capitalizing on many themes relevant to black Americans, made almost half of its substantial gross overseas. Somehow, despite its content, this film didn’t count as ‘black.’ And neither, apparently, does Smith. Why? Because he has broad appeal.
In this sense, the idea that black movies don’t do well overseas becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, though, this can disguise real progress.
The arc of history bends toward justice, and while it may not seem like it, America is becoming more colorblind at the box office. Lee Daniels’s film, The Butler, in which Forest Whitaker portrays service worker Eugene Allen’s 34-year tenure at the White House, would fit into any reasonable definition of ‘black.’ But what was the top story about it? The latest poster design, accommodating its ridiculously long cast list.
Calling a film ‘black’ may just be an easy excuse to give when a producer sees something (a certain je ne sais quoi) he doesn’t think will sell. For example, when George Lucas was pitching Red Tails to major studios, he was told it was ‘too black.’ When after 23 years he decided to fund it himself, the movie ended up being a disappointment. According to Shadow and Act, it just wasn’t a good film.
While cultural change is indirectly affecting it, economic changes are forcing a more direct look at the idea that black doesn’t travel, and more recently, the #OscarSoWhite movement has prompted what appears to be the end of the Oscar nominations’ diversity drought.
Black populations, in Africa and elsewhere, are increasingly upwardly mobile. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they enjoy seeing black faces on the screen, and that is a niche that studios are starting to recognize. Tyler Perry, who just a few years ago was begging the studio to send his film worldwide, today is a hit across the globe. Beasts of the Southern Wild, despite its limited release, enjoyed commercial success overseas in addition to winning the grand prize at Cannes (and 63 other awards). Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight, about a poor black man growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami while struggling with his sexuality, winning Best Picture Oscar, and making over $28.1 million in the international box office and $55.8 million worldwide. Best Picture nominee, Hidden Figures, making $48.7 million overseas and $167.1 million in the domestic box office, for a worldwide total of $215.8 million. Marvel’s Black Panther, a superhero film that focuses on black characters in a story set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and with a largely black cast, smashes box office records.
In emerging economies like South Africa (the only predominantly black BRICS nation, although Brazil has a substantial black population), black films sell. The Steve Harvey advice book turned romantic comedy Think Like a Man made more money there than Zero Dark Thirty and 21 Jump Street combined, with a fraction of the budget.
In short: the idea that ‘black’ film doesn’t sell is under attack from two sides. While economic growth in black populations abroad may motivate producers to fund more nominally ‘black’ content, cultural change may obsolete the expression altogether. To my mind, either alternative is a step in the right direction.