So I was watching Tower Heist last night, which is a better movie than it has a right to be. I knew it was about Ben Stiller and his other service-job buddies breaking into the apartment of the rich banker who defrauded them out of their pensions… But I wasn’t prepared by how much character work went into what’s otherwise a pretty by-the-numbers film. There was a lot of effort put into showing how helpless and futile these working-class stiffs, most of whom took some pride in their jobs, felt when they were ripped off by a guy who wasn’t even punished for what he did.
Then I read that this was initially meant to be an African-American “Ocean’s 11,” and it all sort of came together.
I think I would have enjoyed this film a lot more if it were an all African-American film – it would have been stereotypical in its portrayal of blacks being the underclass, yes, but also more interesting to see a bunch of smart black men (and women) triumphing against a broken system.
But then I thought of Red Tails, which George Lucas claimed that Hollywood refused to fund because “all-black casts don’t sell movies.” (Presumably because whites don’t want to see them.) I know that’s why Tower Heist eventually had to get Ben Stiller on board.
That irritates me, because there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy here. Most movies don’t sell. You need to have your films make two to three times their initial budget to start being profitable, and the vast majority of movies don’t clear that. Hell, Tower Heist with its all-white cast, sure didn’t.
So saying, “Black casts don’t sell movies, so we don’t make them” is kind of like saying, “Look, we gave you your one chance at bat, you missed, so you blacks clearly aren’t meant to be baseball players.” Forgetting that even the most skilled baseball players are lucky to hit four out of ten.
I think the perception is that white people won’t watch black people, which is doubtlessly true for some white people. But on the other hand, it’s amazing what happens when a Will Smith or a Denzel Washington become a box-office star, because then somehow that white terror goes away. Or when Tyler Perry makes a film, which admittedly mostly appeals to black people, but then those films get insta-marginalized to the field of “Tyler Perry films,” which is Hollywood code for, “the man’s a freakish outlier, nobody else can do this.”
Look, Hollywood. You know what people want? Good goddamned films. The truth is, you don’t really know how to make them; as William Goldman once infamously said, “Nobody knows anything.” If creating a hit movie was as simple as putting the right elements together, every movie would be a hit. But some movies have an indefinable something that makes them great, and most do not. Why? Hell if I knew. If I did, I’d be churning out bestselling novels.
So take some chances, man. Make more action-adventure movies with all black casts. See what percentage of them catch fire. Because giving them one big shot every decade or so isn’t enough at-bats to see how someone’s truly hitting, man.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.