Zaman: The Movies We Don’t Watch

Hold yourself accountable for the art you consume.​

by Raniyan Zaman | 10/30/18 2:10am

 A few weeks ago, during a class discussion on media portrayals of archaeology, my professor questioned why films so often lacked diverse casts and dismissed a lack of demand as a possible reason, saying something to the effect of “obviously, people want more diverse films.”

Certainly, no one could be blamed for believing so. Two of the most popular films this year (and ever) were “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” both breakthroughs in terms of on-screen minority representation and deviants from Hollywood’s norm of all-or-majority white casts. Both films landed in the sweet spot of being well-received by critics and audiences alike; “Crazy Rich Asians” was the highest-grossing romantic comedy in over a decade, while “Black Panther” has an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to its box office achievements. Victories for minority representation have also been attained on the smaller screen, such as Netflix’s “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

On its opening weekend, I expected the book-to-film adaptation of “The Hate U Give” to see similar success; maybe not shooting to the top of the list of highest grossing films ever, but surely beating every other movie in its opening weekend in terms of box office numbers. After all, who would want to see “Halloween,” “Venom” or “A Star Is Born” over a raw and poignant exploration of how police brutality affects communities, told from a perspective that isn’t shared enough? (And even that description does a mediocre job of capturing the experience of watching “The Hate U Give.”)

As it turns out, a lot of people. “The Hate U Give” finished sixth at the box office this weekend.

Now this is no small feat, but it doesn’t quite compare to the spectacular release of “Black Panther.” It doesn’t hold up against the way people told each other that they just had to see “Twelve Years A Slave,” “Selma” or “Hidden Figures,” other significant and popular stories with African/African-American stories at their center. It doesn’t compare to the months of hype both before and after the release of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

This could be explained by a host of factors — “The Hate U Give” didn’t have the Marvel franchise name behind it, it was slanted toward a younger demographic, which may make older people less inclined to watch it; and of course, it’s only been a few weeks since its release and it’s too early to tell (though performance on release weekend is generally a good indicator of overall box office performance).

These have all almost certainly played into “The Hate U Give”’s solid-but-not-stellar ticket sales. (And for the record, poor quality definitely did not — major media outlets are arguing that this young adult book-to-movie adaptation should be an Oscar contender.) But it’s more likely that what many thought was a trend of people flocking out in droves to see “diverse films” was really just a trend of people heading to the theaters to consume standard entertainment that allows the audience to see a non-white cast, pat themselves on the back and go home without considering the consequences that they or their actions have on communities of different races or other individuals. This isn’t to say that “Black Panther” or “Crazy Rich Asians” treat race as a mere backdrop to their stories; in contrast, in both stories race, heritage and cultural legacy are front and center, and the very sources of the protagonists’ strength. But Americans also go to see movies that follow similar formulas all the time; superhero action flicks or rom-coms. Popular historical dramas/documentaries such as “Twelve Years A Slave,” “Selma” or “Hidden Figures” are moving and raw, leaving audiences with the rare experience of a transformative cinematic moment. But at their core, they don’t ask audiences to wrestle with anything particularly controversial; only to acknowledge the basic truths that slavery is wrong, the Civil Rights movement required immense amounts of sacrifice and black women experienced unique struggles despite their instrumental contributions to the Space Race. These films allow audiences to divorce racism of the past — presented in its starkest, most blatant forms — from their own present-day realities and selves.

Even the closest popular example to a contemporary film confronting racism, “Get Out,” greatly embellishes the racism that the black protagonist must face and adds a supernatural element. These are fantasies that take an ubiquitous and everyday occurrence that people of color face daily and drum it up, and while the effect is dramatic and the point certainly made, it also makes these films more palatable to white American audiences. The dearth of people who turn out to see films that showcase contemporary experiences of communities of color, as well as the far-reaching effects of microaggressions, are not a fluke.

Americans can and should go beyond consuming simplistic messages such as slavery is amoral, or the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was important. A film such as “The Hate U Give” doesn’t shy away from confronting more contentious forms of prejudice. It openly calls out the hypocrisy of high-school students who attend a protest to skip class (and I think we all know the type); of people with savior complexes who view themselves as speaking out for so-called helpless, voiceless communities when they are really just shouting over them; and of “the white lady who clutches her purse in the elevator” when a black man gets on, as the film’s young protagonist, Starr, accuses one of her peers of becoming. It highlights all-too-familiar examples of racism that even people who think of themselves as liberal may engage in. Films like this may be uncomfortable to watch, and they require a critical self-examination of ourselves, our interactions with others and the deeper implications they hold. But this is why “The Hate U Give” should be an Oscar contender, and it’s also probably exactly why it won’t be. Everyone is completely in control of the art they consume and the art they don’t. This comes with a certain measure of accountability that audiences have yet to display.