This past weekend I, like many other black people, rushed out to theatres to see “The Best Man Holiday.” We all waited 14 years since the release of the “Best Man” to see our favorite group of friends reunite and when it finally happened it was as if a decade and a half never passed. Morris Chestnut, Monica Calhoun, Nia Long, Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan, Harold Perineau, Regina Hall, Melissa DeSouza and Terrance Howard lit up the screen like human Christmas lights strewn together who never lost their shine with their “Good black don’t crack” beauty. Their “good black” didn’t crack and neither did the issues they had in the first movie but little did they know that the movie would present another issue.
As the movie’s stars lit up screens across the country, box office dollars rolled in and by Sunday the movie landed in the number two box office spot behind “Thor.” The film did better than expected, raking in $30.5 million—Hollywood insiders expected the “urban big chill/urban comedy of manners” to make approximately $20 million in the opening weekend. And there’s the rub. The implicit question behind predictions and expectations of the film’s success rests in the idea that a film featuring an all-black cast with the exception of Eddie Ciprian—who often felt like an afterthought rather than a character being built into the franchise–won’t do well. The predominance of one race—specifically African-Americans—in the film apparently makes it hard to sell to “mainstream” audiences. The same predominance of one race made it hard for USA Today writer Scott Bowles to categorize it as anything other than a race-themed movie–until he changed it moments after publishing the headline. Many discussions around Bowles’s gaffe have occurred thus I won’t seek to add to it, but what I do want to discuss is the real race-themed issue that surrounds the “The Best Man Holiday” and other black romantic comedies. “The Best Man Holiday” and similar films featuring a predominantly black cast are not race-themed movies but their existence presents a race-themed issue in terms of viewership. There is a disparity that exists between moviegoers who see those films—predominantly black audiences—and films of a similar nature with all-white casts—predominantly white but with a greater integration of non-white audience members. I want to discuss the possible reasons for the disparity and the possibility that we have segregated love in cinema making “black love” and “white love” a thing over making love a universal aspect of life.
Sitting in the theatre for the Friday night showing of “The Best Man Holiday” I was in a sea of blackness. Some may argue that my geographical location of Atlanta, Georgia had something to do with the demographics, but according to Universal Pictures, 87% of the film’s audience this past weekend, nationally, was African American. I didn’t see a drop of white in the theatre and this was nothing new. I saw “Baggage Claim” on opening weekend at a theatre in Orlando, Florida and I was in the same sea of blackness. As a matter of fact, for as long as I’ve supported black romantic comedies/dramas, I’ve been in a sea of blackness. Within the sea of blackness, 10% or less of the audience are non-black. This is different from your average white romantic comedy in which I’ve observed an integration of audiences. Films such as “Sex & the City”—both installments—come to mind as well as any of the romantic comedies starring Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson, or Katherine Heigl just to name a few. While many might claim to love a good love story, research shows that some people don’t like love stories featuring an all black cast.
In a May 2011 study entitled, “The Role of Actors’ Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies,” Indiana University telecommunications professor Andrew Weaver conducted two experiments to see how the racial makeup of a cast could influence white audience’s selection of a film. The experiments found that “minority cast members” do lead white audiences to be less interested in certain films, particularly romantic comedies. It was found that race even played a role in white audience’s desire to see on-screen kisses. According to Weaver’s research, “The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie.” This was particularly the case for romantic comedies, while in the case of non-romantic comedies race doesn’t play a role in white audiences selective exposure to movies. (So it is ok to watch Denzel Washington play a bad cop in “Training Day” or a heroine kingpin in “American Gangster” or for Tyrese Gibson drive fast cars in “Fast & Furious” volumes 1-100?) Granted this research was done with white undergraduates at Indiana University but it is telling. It says something about the ethos of some white consumers and white Hollywood executives toward black people as they are portrayed in the media. Why is it preferable to watch black actors in non-romantic films? Is it easier to watch black people in period pieces re-enacting their lives as enslaved people and domestics a la “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler” than it is to watch them in a movie primarily about the journey to love such as “Baggage Claim” or “The Best Man Holiday?” Is it difficult to watch a love story between two black people or an interracial couple because of black people’s embattled history? What does it mean to prefer watching the historical lived experience of black people and never want to journey with us to our current lived experience? Our current lived experience which redeems the stereotypical images and misconceptions about black people that pervade mainstream media and makes real the universal search for love and meaning in life.