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In the industry, black leads don’t matter.
If the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown are a reminder that black lives matter, someone needs to send that message to Sony. In yet another embarrassing disclosure from the company’s deluge of leaked emails, executives advised not to cast Denzel Washington in blockbusters, because according to Page Six, foreigners hate black people. “I believe that the international motion picture audience is racist—in general, pictures with an African-American lead don’t play well overseas,” an unnamed producer said in a Sony exchange.
This statement follows the release of Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer, a sizable hit in the U.S. that only grossed 47 percent of its box-office totals from foreign markets. According to Sony, blockbusters should expect to pull in closer to 65 percent of their total revenue overseas, and if the film failed to meet studio expectations, that must be because Washington is black. At first glance, the proposition doesn’t seem completely dubious—previous Denzel Washington pictures like Flight, 2 Guns, and Safe House all underperformed internationally—but rest assured: The problem isn’t moviegoers’ relationships with black people. It’s Hollywood’s relationship with black people.
Let’s look at the types of movies Denzel Washington is allowed to star in: These days, Washington churns out testosterone-driven thrillers catered to a young, male demographic. 2 Guns and The Equalizer rely on a uniquely American brand of machismo, the same definitions of hyper-masculinity that Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain riffed on. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Pain and Gain was the rare film in the Bay canon that didn’t play well internationally. Whereas Transformers: Age of Extinction made a staggering 77 percent of its overall gross outside of the U.S., Pain and Gain pulled in just 42 percent. It’s easy to see why: Even the poster has an American flag on it.
This isn’t to say foreign moviegoers hate U.S. culture (clearly Marvel’s international success proves otherwise), but that they might be less attracted to films they might not be able to relate to. It’s not that they can’t relate to black people, but that Hollywood rarely lets the experiences of black people feel universal. Hollywood films with all-black casts are often rooted in genre—deeply American stories of slavery, suffering, and overcoming adversity, from Amistad to The Help. I lived in France when The Help came out, and I couldn’t name a single person who saw it. Yet nearly every single person I knew had seen Les Intouchables, a populist crowdpleaser about friendship between a black caretaker (played by Omar Sy) and his employer. That movie was one of France’s biggest box-office successes of all time.
Blackness didn’t stop Les Intouchables from killing it, nor did has it prevented Will Smith from being one of the biggest worldwide draws this century. In the past decade, Smith has only been making more and more of his money abroad: While I, Robot pulled in a decent 58 percent of its revenue from foreign markets back in 2004, last year’s After Earth soared abroad, taking in 75 percent its revenue outside of America. That so-called racist international audience actual saved Smith’s film from infamy: In the U.S., the M. Night Shyamalan-directed film made back just half of its $130 million production budget, but after worldwide grosses factored in, it nearly broke even, preventing a giant box-office bomb.
Hancock and Men in Black 3 also proved to be international successes, while fare like The Pursuit of Happyness and Hitch grossed well below that magic 65 percent mark. The Pursuit of Happyness shares the aforementioned genre of movies about Overcoming Black Suffering in America, and Hitch is a romantic comedy. The latter fact is particularly important, as it’s long been accepted industry dogma that, despite the occasional outlier, comedies don’t play well overseas. According to producer Lynda Obst, this is routinely been an argument against casting women in movies. Obst told NPR, “The kinds of movies that they like abroad are movies with huge special effects, and moreover, they don’t like movies with too much dialogue.”
This explains the success of After Earth, a primarily visual movie that doesn’t rely heavily on dialogue to propel the storyline forward. The film might as well be a video game. It also explains why foreign audiences might be less attracted to Eddie Murphy or Kevin Hart vehicles—not because they’re black, but because they’re chatty. While Hart has established himself as a breakout star in the U.S., toplining Think Like a Man, Ride Along, and About Last Night, he has yet to make his mark internationally. Every single one of those movies is a comedy, the kind Obst explains don’t sell to foreign markets. While Tyler Perry’s Madea movies and The Best Man Holiday do huge business in the U.S., they’re stuck in the same trap.
However, the bigger problem here is Obst’s definition of “they.” When she’s talking about the movies “they” like abroad, she’s not just talking about audiences, but the movies studios want to market to an international audience—namely, not black movies. Last year’s Get on Up, No Good Deed, and Belle all grossed less than 10 percent of their totals abroad, and it’s not just because white foreigners stayed away. It’s really hard to go see Get on Up in Russia if it’s not playing in your country, and these figures represent a lack of investment from Hollywood as much as anything else. Fox Searchlight’s Belle didn’t pull in any money abroad, despite being set in England. Is that due to British racism or the sting of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom?
After all, such self-defeating mentalities about what sells abroad don’t stop comedies with white people from being made and marketed all over the globe. 22 Jump Street made an even smaller percentage of its money abroad than The Equalizer did (a slim 42 percent), but that didn’t stop executives from devising a Men in Black crossover nearly the minute it topped the box office. Foreigners accounted for just 19 percent of This Is the End’s total gross, but Seth Rogen got The Interview and Neighbors greenlit anyway. Similarly, baseball movies can count on even less support internationally—Draft Day and Million Dollar Arm made about $3 million abroad, combined—but no one ever suggested that we should stop making movies about middle-aged white guys throwing stuff around.
If the problem of black actors in Hollywood seems complicated, the solution is incredibly simple: Make different movies with black people in them. Kevin Hart has proven himself an immensely versatile performer in comedies—as well as a dependably bankable lead—but he’ll never be an international superstar until studios start treating him like Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, Bradley Cooper, Chris Hemsworth, or any of the other interchangeable white guys allowed to topline big-budget action flicks in Hollywood, even if their movies tank. (Reynolds has approximately 20,000 flops to his name—and he still got Deadpool made.) Hart might be a big deal to audiences, but he’ll always come in second to a generic white guy. After all, according to one Sony executive, Kevin Hart is just a “whore.”
But hope is far from lost. Our current best picture champ, 12 Years a Slave, earned a surprising 70 percent of its box office overseas, even though Italian distributors had no idea what to do with it. And by moving the Fast and Furious franchise to Brazil for Fast Five, the series’ fifth entry proved its most successful to date, pulling in a whopping $626 million. A franchise with a pair of half-black leads in Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, Fast and Furious increasingly relies on a multicultural cast that strategically targets different markets. Its next film could also be the first to top a billion dollars—not bad for a decade-old series. As UCLA studies show that diversity means success on the small screen, Fast and Furious has long proven that it can also be profitable on the big one.
On the back of Fast and Furious 6, Johnson was the highest-grossing actor around the world in 2013, earning $1.2 billion. This year he was in one movie. If you need to know the reason, let producer Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal’s email exchange clear it up for you. Rudin and Pascal speculate on what kind of movies Barack Obama likes. Rudin jokes, “I bet he likes Kevin Hart.” According to the two, his favorites also include 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and Django Unchained. In a response, Obama schooled Rudin and Pascal on the importance of diversity in entertainment, especially for foreign viewers. “If they’re watching an old movie—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Will and Grace and Modern Family—they’ve had a front-row seat to our march towards progress,” Obama said.
What’s funny is that in his statement, Obama has to highlight the Sidney Poitier-starring Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a movie that came out in 1967, to show what a powerful tool the industry can be in combating prejudice. Because in today’s Hollywood, Poitier likely wouldn’t get an invite to the table at all.
Photo via Sony/YouTube
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.