May '00
Black film plus white critic equals?

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By Sekou

Black film plus white film critic equals? A potentially incendiary situation.

There are some who purport that film is just film, that ostensibly there is no significant difference between films that feature predominantly white casts and films that feature predominantly black casts. Wouldn't that be nice?

Even if you assume that black films and white films cover the exact same territory, which typically isn't the case, the way the movie going public reacts to these two different types of film is what makes the difference between them. The vast majority of movies that come out in any given year are going to be comprised of predominantly white casts. It's just the way of the world. As such, African American filmgoers will usually base their decision to see (or not see) these movies based not so much on who's starring in the film, as much as what the film is about. When films starring African American casts come out, however, white filmgoers have no such motivation. Typically, when they see a predominately black cast they assume that the movie won't speak to them, that it won't be a movie that intersects with their world enough for them to find it interesting or enjoyable. That's not necessarily racist or malicious, but it is a matter of making assumptions.

So, back to the equation. A black film comes out; a white film critic reviews it. The critic, surprised that a "niche" film starring African American actors was both accessible and enjoyable to him or her, expresses the same sentiment in their review. Something along the lines of "white movie goers will enjoy this too." There are many in the African American community that take umbrage at such remarks and, indeed, it can be insulting to find people so surprised that our films are interesting. But... (you saw the "but" coming, didn't you?) but we need these reviewers to do exactly what they're doing. We need them to tell white moviegoers that they'll enjoy this movie even though it features a black cast. Because, more often than not, white audiences will not reach such a conclusion unless they are encouraged to do so. I empathize with those of you that find such commentary offensive, but bear in mind that without these white critics advocating our movies to white audiences, very few white moviegoers would ever be inclined to go see a "black" film.

Like you, I long for the day when this doesn't have to be explained. The day when films with black casts are assumed to be universal in theme and accessible in content. Till then, however, our allies are those that can get peoples butts in the seats, especially if that butt happens to belong to someone who wouldn't normally put it there. Ya heard?

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