It seems that people are outraged about the latest major blockbuster film to be set in Africa and, magically, not have any people of color playing major protagonist roles in the film. Maybe the movie is a racist portrayal of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt; maybe it is not. Unlike the backlash against Girls for similar reasons, we do not really have any kind of smoking gun to go off of because, well, the movie does not come out for another four months.
But here is my question: what if the casting had been 100 percent accurate? What if the main character pool were dominated by Black actors and the Israelites were depicted as being Europeans with a bit of a tan? Let’s say you even get some of the best actors to play the parts! Idris Elba. Naomie Harris. Terrence Howard. Star-studded cast.
Would people go see that?
Mandela, which starred Elba (who, by the way, also looks nothing like the person he portrayed) and Harris, grossed $27 million. Only 30 percent of that was grossed in the United States, and it was $8 million less than the cost of production. The movie never made it above #13 on the box office charts, which was achieved on its opening weekend in wide-release.
Red Tails, which starred Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Ne-Yo as three of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, grossed around $50 million and opened at #2 at the box office. While that might seem better than Mandela, it still fell $8 million short of its production costs and it was open in more than double the number of movie theaters Mandela was.
Biopic movies centered around Black historical figures that have done well? The Butler (loosely based on source material), The Help (completely unrealistic portrayal of life in the segregated South), and 12 Years a Slave (a great movie….which only had 30 percent of its gross in the United States and barely cracked the top 10 on opening weekend).
I bring this up because, well, the criticism is pretty myopic. And to a certain extent, with all the calamities happening in the world at the moment, who cares?
Now, I am not here to suggest that the dichotomy is “caring about starving kids in Africa” and “wanting more representation on the movie screen”. But I am here to suggest that even if the conditions were perfect (largely accurate movie, accurate and great casting, great cinematography, wide release, and good plot), that the folks doing all of this complaining still will not go out and support these movies. After all, if Mandela could not break even just two months after the title character’s death (I probably saw more tweets critiquing the hilarious reaction to Michelle Obama’s dismay at the selfies during Mandela’s funeral than I did about the Mandela biopic), then who can blame Hollywood for making a movie with actors that will draw the most people? The motion picture industry ain’t a charity; it is a business in a capitalistic society.
So what is the end game? And when do we start to realize that some of this might also be on us? Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor was widely panned by critics as it came in for round after round of condemnation for its portrayal of marriage, sin, and the freedom of women to make their own choices in life. And yet, it grossed more than both Mandela and Red Tails, despite being in five hundred fewer theaters than the latter. In fact, it was the fifth highest grossing Black film in 2013.
These empty condemnations of films might play to the social justice crowd on Twitter and Tumblr, but if they are not dealing with the support that we give our own movies and our own filmmakers, they are ultimately useless.