Black Cinema, The Best Man Holiday, and Mainstream Malarkey
[Admin. Note: Sometimes a writer hits me up with something I was going to write about, beating me to the punch in some fashion with an interesting perspective. Today is one of those days. So open your minds and hearts to Tonja Stidhum. Welcome her to the house.]
I’ve always loved the phrase, “same difference.” My mama first introduced it to me when I was a kid, and just the pure wit of it attracted me. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve noticed that it was more than a biting comeback… it was truth.
As a screenwriter, I am fully immersed in film culture and truly get my life from industry news. I’m the ninja that reads every Deadline dot com email and they send about a hunnid thousand trillion of those a day. No real exaggeration. I can talk for hours about dissecting a film, the politics of film, the soundtrack of a film, the film award season, and even how film relates to chicken.
One particular aspect of film culture that has always garnered my interest/angered passion is the term “mainstream.” For years, Black films have been in a cinematic struggle-fight, attempting to be inducted in this mysterious mainstream club. Black films aren’t films, they’re Black films. And there’s this secret mainstream formula that Black filmmakers haven’t figured out yet.
Ummm… except not.
The Best Man Holiday, the nostalgic-filled sequel to The Best Man, premiered in nationwide theaters this past weekend and it regurgitated this conversation in full-swing. The successful opening of The Best Man Holiday had Hollywood tongues wagging, pulling in 10.7 million bucks on its Friday debut. This was bawse-sauce as it was up against Thor 2, a superhero film, which is basically the equivalent of going up against Ali in the ring. As the weekend rounded out, however, Thor 2 ended up winning the weekend war, prompting yet another layer of the on-going conversation on “race-themed” films. Shout-out to USA Today for that gem. (-_-)
Here’s my issue: The idea that Black films are mutually exclusive of mainstream culture is the poopiest part of bull poop (I know… mature, right? Bite me. … Also mature). As much as Hollywood and society tries to straw-feed us that mushy mess, I rejected it wholeheartedly. The “mainstream audiences can’t relate to Black-themed stories” argument? I don’t even buy it with Monopoly money.
Sure, there are inside jokes and nuances of a Black film that everyone can’t relate to. But, guess what, Chicken Butt? All of those things are also in every other film/TV show ever. Let’s go with a “mainstream” example in media: Sex in the City. When that show was in its heyday, I remember one of the popular criticisms of that show was how unrealistic the lifestyle was. How the main protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, was able to afford her luxurious wardrobe on the basic b*tch budget of a writer. Generally, the main demographic watching that show couldn’t relate to that lifestyle at all. And yet, somehow, that same demographic watched the show… in droves. And that “somehow” had to do with the core of any form of storytelling. The underlying themes. What the regular Jane Doe demographic could relate to were the themes of friendship and love. And that is the point of connecting with a film and TV show. It has little to do with being able to say, “Girl, I totes always buy a pair of Manolos on my way to the dancery!” and more to do with being able to say, “Girl, I totes know what it feels like to love someone and our timing is never right.” The latter is what keeps us staring at that idiot box every Thursday night and what keeps us paying 10 bucks (each!!!) for what is no longer a cheap date.
The Best Man Holiday, while rife with race-specific jokes and references, had each of those themes. The only difference was the the main ensembles’ skin tones. Which brings us to a very uncomfortable conversation. Because it forces us to break through all the bull… all the detracting arguments that never amount to anything real. Mainstream culture can surely relate to Black films, especially Black romantic comedies. What the French toast is more universal than love?!
Mainstream culture/Hollywood claiming that they can’t relate to Black films only tells me they’re watching films wrong. And I am hard-pressed to believe that is the case because somehow, the reverse happens all the time. Black audiences can watch “mainstream” (read: White) films and not relate to any of the nuances of those characters, yet somehow connect to the film’s overall theme/story. Black audiences definitely factor in the success of mainstream films so if we can do it, why can’t they?
Oh, but they can. And they know they can. The problem is… they refuse to. Ooooh… to piggyback off a filmic phrase: and the plot thickens.
We are all different in infinite ways and I embrace all of those. I think it’s the beauty of humanity. But, what connects us all… is how we’re the same.
Same difference, indeed.
What say you, mainstream blog nation? Do you believe it is possible to replace a White lead with a Black lead and it still be the same story, as it’s truly the themes that matter? Or do you believe that Black films are that far removed from everyone else? Speak on it.
Tonja Renée Stidhum is a screenwriter, lollygagging (in third person) in Chicago. Working on that “for pay” part. You can catch her occasional musings at embracethej.tumblr.com and follow her scatterbrained thoughts at @embracethej.