DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: #BlackFilmsMatter
The 2015 comedy Dope has an 89 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com, with a critic’s consensus that it features a “starmaking performance from Shameik Moore and a refreshingly original point of view from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa.” It showed at Cannes and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.
Regardless, it only played in one Southern Oregon theater for one week in June—tragically, before this reporter had a chance to make it to the theater.
And it’s not because the region isn’t interested in film. We have multiple cineplexes that show a wide variety of studio, independent and foreign releases, as well as several regional film festivals, including the industry darling AIFF.
To be blunt: it didn’t last because Dope was a black film.
That’s an issue I’m reminded of this week for two reasons.
The first is a recently published report from Annenberg University about diversity in film. It analyzed 700 films and 30,835 characters representing the 100 top-grossing films from 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Amongst its many findings were that 73.1 percent of all the speaking or named characters in the top 100 movies were white. Cinema is even less representative of women than it is a spectrum of ethnicities. Only 1.9 percent of the 700 movies audited were directed by women, who—for those keeping count—are 50 percent of the population.
The second reason is that the long-awaited N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton opened nationwide this week, and hopefully, it will stick around theaters a little longer.
Films and storytelling are a window into worlds we haven’t experienced, and with the now almost-daily videos of police violence against people of color hitting the internet, structural racism finally a topic being discussed outside of sociology classes, and even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (who marched on Washington with MLK) getting backlash by #BlackLivesMatter activists for falling short on race issues, it’s more clear than ever that white America needs to see how the other half lives. Even more specifically, white America needs to come to grips with the black America that N.W.A. survived—with the exception of Eazy-E, who died in 1995 at age 31 of AIDS (which CDC data shows affects black men at eight times the rate of white men).
And as much as everyone probably should read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ now instant-classic Between the World and Me to get that understanding, the ugly truth is that a two-hour biopic about A-list stars like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre that also covers the LA riots, and a litany of other prescient race issues, is a far less-imposing gateway to raising awareness than Coates’ deliberately bleak jeremiad.
Of course, it’s no secret that the demographics of Southern Oregon are primarily white, which could translate to Straight Outta Compton lasting about as long as Dope did in the theater. It’s a pragmatic business decision for cinemas to not show films to empty seats. But not everything about business, especially if that business is culture, should be about profit. Whether it’s spending a little more to go green or dipping into the red to create space for conversations on important issues, sometimes you gotta be willing to sacrifice a little as a loss leader to do the right thing. We do it all the time here at The Messenger—occasionally even too much of the time—and it’s always worth it. #BlackLivesMatter. So do black films, because their absence is part of why America is in this mess of refusing to acknowledge the depth of our race problems in the first place.