Quick: name a horror movie where one of the good guys is black. Well, hell, that's easy. One of the ship's crew in Alien was black, and some of the soldiers in Aliens. Danny Glover was the cop in Saw, Carl Weathers was one of the squad in Predator. Lawrence Fishburne in Predators. Hell, there are lots of them.
Now count how many of them survived to the end.
Pointing out that black characters die in movies isn't even clever anymore -- it's the kind of obvious, trite joke that bad movies make about other bad movies. But, inexplicably, it keeps happening. In the original Terminator, every black character shown on screen dies. In Transformers, the "black" robot who speaks in inner city slang dies.
In a scene stolen directly from Boyz N the Hood.
There are some exceptions. You can bet that he won't die if he's played by a superstar like Will Smith or Eddie Murphy, who, not coincidentally, are among the very few black top-grossing actors at the box office. Otherwise, the black guy is there to get killed.
"Go get 'em, buddy. Here, you can borrow my knife."
So What's the Deal?
Even in the 21st century, with a black president and posters of black athletes adorning bedroom walls all across the world, white audiences still prefer to watch white characters.
It would be easy to argue that the box office numbers are skewed because, say, Fellowship of the Ring was simply a better movie than Big Momma's House. But you can get the same results from focus groups with everything else being equal. In this 2011 study, white undergraduates were given the synopses of 12 made-up romantic comedies. Along with the summaries, they got cast pictures and fake IMDB pages, which were manipulated so that each movie had six versions of the cast; an all-white cast, an all-black cast and four different versions in between.
Same plot, same characters, same everything -- just different cast members. And unfortunately, the whiter the cast, the higher the likelihood of the students wanting to see the movie.
So how does this play out in real movies? Black characters end up in supporting roles, instead of being well-developed characters. They're just there so we can "judge the other (white) characters by how they treat them." In other words, we certainly don't root for racist characters, and we'll boo racist stereotypes. But our open-mindedness usually stops at the point of actually paying to see a black leading man. Other than Will Smith.
Look at that list of the top-grossing actors again. Other than Murphy and Smith, the only names in the top 50 are Chris Rock, Billy Dee Williams (because of Star Wars) and Morgan Freeman. How many of them were the stars of their big movies? For Morgan Freeman, in his top 10 most successful films he was the lead in only one (Driving Miss Daisy -- a movie about race relations). Was Chris Rock the lead in any of his top 20 biggest movies?
Let's play a little game we like to call "Guess Who Got the Lead Role."
What sets Will Smith apart is that he's one of very few actors who can get roles that weren't specifically written to be African-American. If the role is an action hero who could be any race at all, Hollywood usually interprets that as "a white guy, or Will Smith." And that's only after Smith became a superstar -- in 1996 he was a long shot for getting cast in Independence Day. In fact, director Roland Emmerich had to fight to get Smith at all. The studio wanted to cast a white guy.
And as that essayist has pointed out, none of our favorite black actors are spring chickens. They're getting old, and they haven't been replaced. And even when black actors are successful, like more-successful-than-any-other-entertainer-in-the-world-successful, white audiences are pretty oblivious. How many white people could recognize Tyler Perry in a crowd? Exactly.
He'll be the one carrying a gym bag full of awards.
When we see Martin Lawrence or Chris Rock or Ice Cube in a leading role, we automatically assume that, like a Tyler Perry movie, it's for a "niche" or "urban" market.*
* "Urban" means "black."
We're not exactly blowing your mind when we say that 300 had some slight historical inaccuracies when it came to the race of its heroes, or that Jesus was not exactly the European-looking Superman we're used to seeing in movies, paintings and bumper stickers.
What's weirder is when the movie pretends to be about the triumph of a minority character, but instead spends all its time talking about the white people who save him. Like in The Blind Side, which was supposed to be about Michael Oher, a poor black kid who ended up being adopted by a wealthy white family and going to college on a football scholarship. The movie is, of course, all about the white family. Michael Oher is just a thing that needs to be taken care of, not an actual character.
Ew! Those fingers have touched Sylvester Stallone!
In real life, there's a fair amount of controversy regarding Oher's path to college, but the movie edits all that out because white people are perfect. They even add a scene where Sandra Bullock faces down a gang leader on his own front porch, in front of his peers. Which not only never happened, but is also pretty insane considering that she's addressing what is supposed to be a member of the Gangster Disciples.
But whitening up minority stories isn't limited to The Blind Side. Remember the white Canadians who built Rubin Carter's case to get him freed in The Hurricane? According to Carter's lawyer Lewis Steel, all they really did was provide emotional support. And the fact that Carter ended up marrying one of those white characters isn't even mentioned.
"OK, this shot isn't working. Let's try switching Denzel's spot with the white guy in the back."
So What's the Deal?
Money. Once again, it's money. To get white people in the theater seats, the story has to revolve around white people.
And the phenomenon isn't even limited to stereotypes -- Stuck, a movie about an African-American woman who is convicted of murder, had to cast a white woman in the lead role to get financed because, as one casting director pointed out, "It's about getting the movie done. Everyone is looking to make their money back." And as we already covered, black actresses don't bring in money. Giving white actresses cornrows, on the other hand, apparently will.
This screengrab pretty much sums up race relations in 21st century America.
Or take The Help, a story about how the American civil rights movement affected the home lives of privileged white college graduates who have a book deal. That wouldn't really be a problem (you don't always have to tell the biggest story) if it weren't for the fact that it's one of the very few big-budget movies made about the civil rights movement. Ever. And just like Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi and Driving Miss Daisy, the story is told from a white perspective.
And the examples just keep coming. Let's say you want to cash in on that "samurai" thing all the kids are talking about ...
... or Native Americans in the 18th century ...
...or the Massacre of Nanking.
Even if you don't care about racism or moving forward as a culture -- even if you just care about seeing good movies -- this sucks, because there are really cool true stories that would make really awesome movies. Like this one about Haitian Revolutionary Leader Toussant Louverture. Danny Glover's been trying to get it made for years, but he can't get funding because producers keep saying, "Where are the white heroes?"
Again, we can blame the studios all we want. But they've learned from hard experience that for the most part, if they don't play to our prejudices, we simply won't go see their movie.
J. F. Sargent blogs, Tweets and is the managing editor of the political website PCulpa.com, which you can write for.
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