To get to the short explanation of this loaded assertion I have to narrowly define what I mean by “Black” movies. Black movies are those films with a majority Black cast that situate Whites, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles. No matter what the genre and no matter what the race of the director, these kinds of Black films, we are told, form a niche market within the broader domestic U.S. market and are but a tiny fraction of the Global film marketplace. Now that I’ve established this narrow definition we can explore a brief series of questions beginning with the assertion that is the title of this piece.
Why White people don’t like Black movies.
A vast majority of White people don’t like Black movies because they lack the empathy necessary to identify with Black characters which in turn affects their ability to “suspend disbelief” and surrender to the narrative of a Black film. What has been called the Racial Empathy Gap in various sociological studies conducted by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough have revealed that,” The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race.”(1) This study found that the degree of mental activity when White participants watched non-White men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task. “In other words people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people.” (2)
When we watch a film we are watching images of people doing tasks in the pursuit of a goal to change a circumstance and it stands to reason that if the threshold of empathy in Whites is higher when watching non-Whites perform certain tasks because of the Racial Empathy Gap, then if the Whites are watching a Black film such a high empathy threshold would make the suspension of disbelief difficult and attenuate the pleasure of their viewing experience.
But it is often difficult to transpose such highly controlled academic research into a diverse cultural enterprise such as the cinema, so I offer here my own anecdotal evidence that would seem to confirm how the Racial Empathy Gap negatively impairs the ability of Whites to be entertained by a Black film.
In January of 2011 the Wayne State University Media Arts and Communication department hosted a special event with Academy Award winning Asian-American Editor Richard Chew (Star Wars IV: A New Hope-1977, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest- 1975, Waiting to Exhale- 1995) at the esteemed Detroit Film Theatre. There was an on stage interview with the acclaimed editor with clips from the various films he had worked on throughout his career. He amused the audience with juicy tidbits of behind the scenes encounters with various movie stars and directors of whom the audience was familiar.
The event also included a full screening of the groundbreaking 1964 film NOTHIN’ BUT A MAN (Michael Roemer) which Chew credited as a major inspiration for getting him involved in the film industry since he was in law school when he saw it and started his career soon after.
This Black film starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln which has a story that can be understood as an important harbinger of the Civil Rights Movement was playing to a packed house that night: ¾ White and ¼ Black. Yet I noticed and couldn’t help but to keep track of the fact that 10 minutes after the house lights went off and the film started many Whites began discreetly heading towards the exits. Two by two, White couples and individuals continued to leave the screening as the film was on, until by the film’s end only the Blacks and a handful of Whites remained. I was stunned because I assumed that the older White couples in attendance, who would have been young adults during the Sixties, surely could empathize with the Civil Rights issues dramatized with the film, but the emptying out of the theatre would seem to confirm that some Whites –no matter how tolerant- are unwilling or unable to overcome their Racial Empathy Gap and watch a dramatic film with a majority Black cast.
Specifically, a film whose story does not show Blacks interacting with Whites in servitude, deference, or emotional dependence. In other words, when the fictional world within the film is exclusively under Black control and influence, as was the case with NOTHIN’ BUT A MAN, many Whites snuck out during the screening, if they dared go see it at all.
The effects of such a Racial Empathy Gap may not negatively influence all Whites when they are viewing a Black film as was evidenced by those Whites who stayed through the entire screening, but it would seem to have had a strong negative influence upon a large number of Whites who had attended the event.
Now of course the Racial Empathy Gap does not directly correlate to a racist attitude or mentality, but it would seem to suggest that there is a certain comfort level experienced with one’s own race that extends to the attention one gives and the pleasure one receives from watching a narrative film. As film scholar Anna Everett has mentioned Whites don’t take notice when there are no minorities or Blacks in a film, but Blacks do. “Even if Whites recognize the exclusion it will have different meanings for them.” (3) Conversely, Whites do seem to take notice when there are no Whites in a film and, it would seem, respond by leaving the theatre or not going to the see the film at all.
Another anecdotal example concerning Whites dislike of Black films is found in the negative comments thrown at Irish director Bill Sheridan for making GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ (2005): He says,” Everybody keeps saying,’ You know, you made a black movie.’ And I keep saying,’ No, I made a movie . . . I made the same movie if I were making it in Dublin or London or anywhere.’ I didn’t approach it like its special. I’m used to Belfast. It’s the same.”(Slave Cinema, 35) Now we can assume with a reasonable degree of certainty that the “They” being referred to were White critics and industry insiders whose comments seemed to be specifically targeted at Jim Sheridan for making one of “those” movies; Black movies that they don’t really want to experience.
Before addressing the deleterious consequences of the Racial Empathy Gap on Black cinema as a whole it would be prudent to ask a question from the assertion with which we began in the opposite context.
Why do Black people like White movies?
The short answer here is that we don’t have much of a choice.
Many of the big budgeted, summer and holiday tent-pole blockbusters often have a majority White cast and/or feature Blacks and other minorities in supporting or non-influential roles. These blockbusters have massive screen ratios from 2500 to 3500 screens and equally massive marketing campaigns designed to tickle the fancy of even the most discriminating viewers and/or their children. Long running franchises that often begin as White films start to add more color to their casts over time as a way of sustaining and extending their audiences as was proven recently with the Latino upgrades in the blockbuster, Fast and Furious 6. Moreover there is a vast catalog of decades and decades of films where Whites (and ethnicities who feign Whiteness) make up the majority of the cast, often with no Blacks at all or Blacks in menial roles that are still pleasurable to view by Blacks and Whites alike.
The White film is narrowly defined here as a film with at least one White in the lead role or co-lead role and Blacks or other ethnicities in supporting or non-influential roles where the narrative resolves itself by giving more dramatic attention to the emotions and circumstances of the White character(s).
Another more profound answer is that it is not just the race of the cast members that we as Blacks are empathizing with when we watch a “White” film. Some of us might be acknowledging the tacit notions of White privilege, power and control that can be reduced to the higher class status often ascribed to Whites that many other races and ethnicities aspire to exercise in a highly economically stratified society such as the United States. Even as the United States becomes increasingly less White (in its population aggregate) the notions of privilege, power and control associated with upper class status is still seen through the prism of Whiteness on the movie screen.
It is a question of agency. We watch Whites exercise power, privilege and control in “White” films because some of us aspire to exercise that same type of agency ourselves so we, for lack of a better phrase, roll with the Whiteness that we see on the screen. We don’t sneak out of the Tom Cruise movie when the lights go down.
Returning to the research on the Racial Empathy Gap- the researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca found that some Blacks lacked empathy for those of their own race and their findings suggest that class and social status- which is inextricably tied to race in this country can have an inhibiting effect with regards to empathy. “It turns out assumptions about what it means to be black- in terms of social status and hardship may be behind the bias… First, there is an underlying belief that there is a single black experience of the world.” (4)
For many Blacks to exercise a sense of power, privilege and control similar to Whites a material emphasis is placed on Class divisions within the race which subsequently affects their empathy threshold with regards to members of their own race.
What can be suggested here with some degree of certainty is that the two vectors of Race and Class have an effect upon empathy thresholds. The effect, which could be measured using the same techniques as those in the two Empathy studies, might potentially reveal that Race is a stronger impediment to Whites with regards to Black films just as Class is a stronger impediment to certain Blacks when they watch Black films (e.g. Hood films v. Black Rom/Coms). For example, even though a Black upper class exists (both historically and in the present day) as was documented in the book OUR KIND OF PEOPLE: Inside America’s Black Upper Class by Lawrence Otis Graham, we rarely see films made about this Black upper class and the world they inhabit because of this,” underlying belief that there is a single black experience of the world.” (ibid)
But now we should consider a third and final important question:
Why should Blacks care if Whites don’t like Black Movies?
With almost 14 Black films and films with Blacks in high profile roles scheduled for release from July to December of this year it would appear that another Black film renaissance (like the one in the early Nineties) is coming our way. All we have to do is support these films with our dollars and it won’t matter if Whites like or don’t like our movies.
Yet one of the deleterious consequences of narrowly defining Black films as films with a majority Black cast that situates Whites in peripheral or non-influential roles is that we are too easily convinced that Black films only appeal to a small domestic niche market. Even after the success of THINK LIKE A MAN in overseas markets like South Africa and Great Britain foreign licensing rights are still a sensitive issue of negotiation between studios and Black filmmakers- and by sensitive I mean you don’t discuss them with the studio if you want to get your film made or seen.
In addition, this narrow conception of Black movies encourages the studios to treat all Black films as one singular genre that appeals to one singular audience. Budgets are mandatorily kept low, development schedules are reduced to mere months and the control over the kinds of images we produce of ourselves are held in tight control in a myriad of other ways from screen ratios, to ratings to the dreaded DVD only release. All of this power is exerted upon images of Blacks by Whites perhaps because the only way to truly enjoy White power, privilege and control is when it is exerted against Blacks and other minorities.
Because African-Americans have not held simultaneous control over the four essential aspects of filmmaking: finance, production, distribution and exhibition since the advent of the “talking” Motion picture, we have been at the mercy so to speak of those Whites and other ethnicities who have and do hold control of if not all four aspects then at least one. The consequence of this “three card monte” type of power shuffle, for lack of a better analogy, is that even with the use of Kickstarter finance campaigns, AFFRM art-house releasing patterns, internet streaming, and on demand viewing Blacks are kept out of the “big arena”; segregated within an unequal global cinematic playing field.
A way out of this power shuffle is not the direct route of simultaneously having our own means of finance, production, distribution and exhibition- this ideal is both impractical and unwise given the amount of capital necessary and the constantly manipulated pitfalls of the cinematic industry. Instead it is the narrow definition of a Black film that must be challenged in such a way that the threshold of empathy is lowered for both Whites and Blacks with agency (power, privilege, and control) alternating within an integrated and/or international cast. Such an expansion of the definition of a Black film begins by challenging the stereotypes of race and class as they define our perception of social roles and agency.
For the visionary Black filmmaker the task is really to destroy the notion of a singular Black experience of the world by any means necessary.
Don’t look for truths, look for lies.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.
(1) “Human brain recognizes and reacts to race, UTSC researchers discover” by April Kemick, 4,26,2010 http://ose.utsc.utoronto.ca/ose/story.php?id=2135
(3) “The Other Pleasures: The Narrative Function of Race in the Cinema” by Anna Everett, taken from page 122 of SHOTS IN THE MIRROR: Crime Films and Society 2nd Ed. by Nicole Rafter, Oxford, 2006.
(4) “I Don’t Feel Your Pain: A failure of empathy perpetuates racial disparities” by Jason Silverstein 6,27,2013. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/06/racial_empathy_gap_people_don_t_perceive_pain_in_other_races.html