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How Hollywood is failing black audiences

Online series like Awkward Black Girl have told original, fresh stories about black lives. Where are those voices on the big screen?


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“Vegas, baby!”

Ever since Vince Vaughn hollered about the promise of a weekend of hedonism in 1996’s Swingers, this has been the immortal cry in one paraphrased context or another of the good, upstanding bro looking to unleash his most buried ya-yas before returning to the relative comforts of God-and-country-approved matrimony. Vegas hedonism, in the American mainstream cinema at least, has become a bastion of stasis, a place where the world never changes and good, upstanding, typically Caucasian folks can go to be somebody else for a few days.

That’s key to the Vegas fantasy: It’s always dirty, debauched, but rarely the kind of dangerous typically represented by ethnicity in Hollywood. (As Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers succinctly put it last year, it’s a life-changing, glorious party until race enters into the situation.) Which is why this past weekend’s top-drawing release, Think Like A Man Too, is surprising in at least one respect: It’s a film with an almost completely black cast and set in Las Vegas—The Hangover fused with Bridesmaids fused with Kevin Hart’s overexerting visage, an attempt to translate the outlandish party comedy to a different audience than studios often cater to.

This isn’t the first time this has happened in the recent cinematic past, either. A trend has emerged, in which movies typically aimed at white audiences (the “general public,” which is a problem unto itself) are repurposed for more specific demographics under the pretense of targeted marketing.

This year alone, we’ve seen two other Kevin Hart vehicles where the same ideal was at play. Ride Along, which shared director Tim Story with TLMT, was a wannabe Beverly Hills Cop, an update of the opposites-attract action comedy where this time, both lead actors were black men instead of just one. And it was a smash hit, to the tune of $134 million. About Last Night repurposed a forgettable ‘80s comedy starring Jim Belushi and Demi Moore as a modern-day battle of the sexes comedy and found notable success as well.

Here’s the problem: There are more prominent black films coming out now than were as recently as five years ago, but they’re not particularly original, or telling particularly ambitious stories. They’re repackaging stories considered rote by the modern moviegoing audience with the intentions of revitalizing them via the draw of unfamiliar casting—which is to say, non-white.

The Guardian’s David Cook illustrated this succinctly in his writing on the first installment: “An ensemble rom-com pits a momma’s boy, a commitment-phobe, an avid stud and a dreamy loser against a lineup of no less familiar female stereotypes. Everyone is aspirationally middle class and inhabits an improbably expensive-looking apartment in sunny LA.” There isn’t much of an argument to be made that this setup hasn’t been run into the ground ever since the middle class entered into the popular consciousness in the ‘80s and beyond.

This trend pops up elsewhere as well. Last year’s The Best Man Holiday, while a charming and belated sequel to an equally charming original, was the wacky holiday ensemble movie with a dose of melodrama. Tyler Perry’s films have filled the respective voids of crowd-pleasing comedy and/or heartrending traditional melodrama, depending on his chosen mode. 42 brought the forgettable, questionably structured biopic to black audiences.

Even a multiple-Oscar nominee like The Help exists in the tradition of the inspiring social drama, and like many of those, foregrounds a prominent white character to be the impetus for change, and 12 Years a Slave, the profound and searing film it was, ultimately depended on Good Guy Brad Pitt to bring the tragedy to a close. The black films coming out, by and large, are less representative of a select audience than they are of which trends Hollywood has proven viable, or even seen fall out of fashion.

The logic behind this, to an extent, is understandable if problematic. As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir previously noted, “Anyone who understands moviegoing demographics will tell you that African-Americans and Hispanics are overrepresented—often dramatically so—among audiences for action-adventure movies, horror films and mainstream comedies. Giving those viewers someone ‘relatable’ in the cast (I hate that word, but apparently it’s standard English now) is good marketing sense.”

In the simplest terms, this phenomenon exists because it’s lucrative. Hollywood makes the movies it thinks people will see, and if black riffs on traditionally popular movies are the ticket, so be it.

Digging a bit deeper, however, the subtext is less palatable. Films like Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs feel outdated at present, but they once appealed to audiences because of their mining comedy from the perceived inherent contradictions between characters of different races.

Driving Miss Daisy, considered the best film of 1989 at the Academy Awards, was a study in how tolerance was learned by way of a black man gently educating an ignorant white woman. (Tellingly that same year, Do The Right Thing, a vastly more complicated and nuanced approach to race relations in America, was snubbed.) Historically, mainstream films featuring black actors have either downplayed the issue of ethnicity or foregrounded it for the sake of comedy or lessons in tolerance.

This isn’t even to say that creative minds haven’t been combating this, in many different ways. It’s just that they’ve found other frontiers. The recent Dear White People trailer, in addition to breaking out online, heralds the coming of a film that was a button-pushing hit at this year’s Sundance.

Online, creative voices like Issa Rae have created spaces where black stories both related and unrelated to the specific topic of ethnicity can exist. Awkward Black Girl is a rather effective example in this case, with respect to the fact that it engages with issues of race on a regular basis without the sense of difference necessarily being the sole focus. (Seriously, follow that link. There isn’t enough space in this article to adequately illustrate how great Rae’s work has been.)

But therein lies the rub. While the Internet offers space for new voices, those voices have to endure the struggle of finding an audience among all the noise. Rae managed to expand outward, to the point where Awkward Black Girl may even see the light of day as a movie, and has found support from Shonda Rhimes for her upcoming TV pilot.

But hers is still one success story among many more artists looking to expand outward. Online there are innumerable opportunities, but precious few that manifest themselves as wide-ranging, mainstream shots at exposure and genuine success. (In time we can only hope that other YouTube celebrities with notable followings, like Franchesca Ramsey for instance, will break out in similar fashion.) To relegate new, essential voices to niche markets is to deny the breadth of experiences and stories waiting to be told, to audiences who may well prove more open to them than a handful of studio executives may well expect.

In this respect Think Like A Man Too is all the more disconcerting. The vestiges of progress (a film with an almost all-black cast, the follow-up to a sleeper hit, coming out during the hottest time of year for big-ticket movie releases) are ultimately undercut by a film that’s at turns derivative of already existing films, as though assuming the target audience would only watch The Hangover if Kevin Hart were in it, and centered around telling the least culturally specific stories possible.

Grantland’s Wesley Morris puts this imperative in focus: “No one who ends a movie with Hart fighting another character for money that’s rained from an actual Steve Harvey slot machine cares about charges of literalism and redundancy—only getting more.”

It’s not that these films are just bad—or derivative. It’s that they’re homogenizing the black film to a point where anybody could sit down and enjoy it, lest audiences be asked to relate to characters that may not be completely identical to their own lives and ethos. And in a film market where 12 Years a Slave underperformed, where the towering Fruitvale Station barely saw a prominent release, this isn’t a solution, or really even progress. It’s a means of avoiding larger issues of audience identification.

If this still seems like it’s not an issue, let’s speak simply: it means we’ll keep getting more phoned-in Kevin Hart movies. And nobody wants that.

Dominick Suzanne-Mayer is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and a film critic and co-managing editor at HEAVEmedia. He also hosts Permanent Records, a Chicago open-mic dedicated to dramatic readings and/or told stories of everyone’s embarrassing youthful years.

Photo via Think Like a Man Too/Trailer

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