When a film earns over $100 million domestic, it’s noteworthy but hardly unusual; 30 films claimed that distinction in 2016 alone. When a film directed by an African-American joins that group, however, it’s a different story.
In all of film history, considered by adjusted gross, only 33 titles from black directors have earned over $100 million domestic — a fact that highlights the endemic lack of opportunity. (A 2015 DGA study put all minority male directors at 11.2 percent of studio releases. Minority female directors comprise 1.3 percent; none are on this list.)
Several names show repeatedly: There’s John Singleton with four, F. Gary Gray, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and Antoine Fuqua with three, and Spike Lee and Forest Whitaker with two. And the name that shows up most of all is Denzel Washington; he stars in five of the films.
“Stir Crazy” is one of only four other films on the $100 million list that predate 1990. Since that point, they have been fairly evenly divided over the years. However, that doesn’t reflect the overarching studio trend of franchises and sequels: Only three were outright sequels, although there were five films produced as standalones that went on to launch a series.
How did these films find success without sequelitis? Short answer is, they had to. Conventional wisdom holds that black films don’t play overseas. However dubious that factoid, it also forces these films to focus on domestic response, and frees them from the often-stifling requirement of “presold elements” that would make it easier to sell worldwide.
Finally, that may also point to a little-known honor of black filmmaking: If we were to make a chart of most profitable films, films from black directors would rank far higher. While the two “Furious” films are exceptions, most of the titles on this list had budgets way below the norm. “Get Out” is more typical — a $5 million budget that’s grossed $175 million to date, and will likely result in the biggest percentage return in investment of any Hollywood production this year.
Films are presented in ranked order, from least to greatest, and listings include title, director, year, and adjusted gross (source: Box Office Mojo).
Up next: Spike Lee, the Hughes Bros., and a movie that stole Channing Tatum’s thunder.
33. New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991: $100,000,000)
A groundbreaking and gritty New York gangster film released in the middle of the crack epidemic that stands out for a cast that included Van Peebles, Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, and an up-and-coming Chris Rock. Its $8 million budget for its time was not particularly low, but it still had independent and critical credibility from its premiere at Sundance.
32. White Chicks (Keenen Ivory Wayans, 2004: $100,829,800)
Two other Wayans brothers in whiteface are really creepy contact lenses played women as FBI agents sent to disrupt a Hamptons kidnapping plot. The budget approached $50 million in adjusted numbers, but it did about 40 percent of its business overseas.
31. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992: $102,635,800)
A dream project for all involved, this biopic grossed double the next biggest one of 1992, the Jack Nicholson-starring “Hoffa.”
30. Four Brothers (John Singleton, 2005: $102,734,900)
Mark Wahlberg made this right after F. Gary Gray’s “The Italian Job,” opposite a young Garrett Hedlund and musicians-turned-actors Tyrese Gibson and Andre Benjamin.
29. The Book of Eli (Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes, 2010: $105,451,800)
The biggest hit for the Hughes Brothers (who had acclaim and modest success with their earlier “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents”) came from this futuristic action effort with Denzel Washington.
28. Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013: $106,737,600)
Fuqua rebounded after a series of lesser action films post-“Training Day” with this sleeper. It undermined Sony’s similarly plotted “White House Down” with Channing Tatum.
Next page includes the youngest director on the list and Tyler Perry’s biggest hit.
27. The Equalizer (Antoine Fuqua, 2014: $108,152,600)
After “American Gangster,” this was Denzel Washington’s biggest overseas success with grosses a little below its domestic take.
26. Scary Movie 2 (Keenen Ivory Wayans, 2001: $111,373,100)
Wayans’ second go at the “Scary Movie” franchise cost more than double, but grossed only about half of the first — though with nearly the same results overseas.
25. Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail (Tyler Perry, 2009: $111,433,700)
This was Tyler Perry’s sixth film, and by far the biggest to date in Perry’s media juggernaut. Critics didn’t care for it — though throughout his career, they rarely do.
24. Eddie Murphy Raw (Robert Townsend, 1987: $111,591,900)
Townsend is better known as an actor for his own low-budget “Hollywood Shuffle” and “The Five Heartbeats,” but this comedy concert film was his biggest success as a director as well as the biggest comedy concert hit ever (a genre that almost entirely considers of black performers).
23. Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015: $111,681,500)
Next year, we may see Coogler overtake “Stir Crazy” when his Marvel “Black Panther” with “Creed” star Michael B. Jordan hit theaters in February. But it won’t be their first major hit.
22. Hope Floats (Forest Whitaker, 1998: $113,192,000)
Sandra Bullock played a single mother who is reunited with former classmate Harry Connick Jr. that showed Whitaker’s affinity for romances, regardless of race.
Next page: Spike Lee’s biggest film and a movie that launched a surprise franchise.
21. Rise of the Guardians (Peter Ramsey, 2012: $113,827,000)
The only animated feature from a major studio (DreamWorks here) directed by an African-American.
20. Barbershop (Tim Story, 2002: $115,289,100)
This was Tim Story’s directorial debut (two prior efforts went direct to video) and on a $12 million budget, was a major hit. It spurred two sequels and continued Ice Cube’s rise as a comedy star.
19. Shaft (John Singleton, 2000: $115,353,400)
Singleton’s remake of Gordon Parks’ 1971 breakthrough New York detective hero did even better than the original; that one made $78 million in adjusted gross, a record at the time for a film by a black director.
18. Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006: $119,459,400)
The biggest-grossing film of Lee’s career — and along with “Malcolm X,” his most expensive. Both films had Denzel Washington in the lead; the success here showed that when he had an opportunity for a studio career, he could play at the level of Fuqua, Story and Gray.
17. Training Day (Antoine Fuqua, 2001: $119,686,600)
This was an action movie with a hard heart and razor-sharp mind. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke starred in the film, which has even been cited by some police officers for its accuracy in portraying the mindset of dirty cops.
16. Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991: $120,744,900)
In the ’70s, this script would have been mined for its blaxloitation potential, but writer-director John Singleton created a groundbreaking film that captured urban America with depth and compassion — and two Oscar nominations.
Up next: The movie that became a social phenom and one where the reviews couldn’t touch the box office.
15. Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit (Bill Duke, 1993: $121,893,200)
It was an an impressive haul, but reviews were uniformly terrible for this sequel to the surprise 1992 blockbuster.
14. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013: $130,930,000)
Despite reviews that were fair to mediocre, a stellar ensemble cast (Forrest Whitaker, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey), and The Weinstein Company’s determination to treat it as an Oscar contender (although it yielded no nominations) created a box-office hit.
13. Harlem Nights (Eddie Murphy, 1989: $134,437,400)
Though it received far less attention than Francis Ford Coppola’s similar “The Cotton Club” a few years earlier, Murphy’s sole directorial effort grossed far better and, unlike Coppola’s, his film made money.
12. Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, 1995: $134,835,800)
It opened at number one, and became a social phenomenon. The success of this film made front-page news in the Wall Street Journal: Black women, attending in droves! Who knew? However, it was far from surprising: This film was based on the runaway best-seller by Terry McMilan.
11. Boomerang (Reginald Hudlin, 1992: $149,220,100)
Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens (remember her?), and Halle Berry starred in this romantic comedy that drafted off of Murphy’s box-office value as well as a then-untapped appetite in the black community for rom-coms.
10. Ride Along (Tim Story, 2014: $149,777,200)
Terrible reviews, but the pairing of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart was inspired and also made for a successful sequel ($91 million).
Next page: The most profitable film on the list, and the least.
9. The Italian Job (F. Gary Gray, 2003: $155,584,900)
This was a remake of Paramount Pictures’ 1969 Michael Caine comic caper, with Mark Wahlberg in the lead and Charlize Theron in the role originally assayed by Noel Coward (!).
8. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007: $169,504,100)
There’s a lot of dollar signs here, but on a budget of $130 million and falling squarely in the “lost” Marvel years pre-Disney, it’s considered something of a creative and financial flop.
7. Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015: $172,634,500)
A great example of a movie taking its sweet time to align talent, development, and the zeitgeist. While its producers include NWA’s Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, Gray’s humor and his connection to the material allowed it to rise above garden-variety hagiography.
6. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017: $174,003,435)
The biggest profit return among these titles, Peele’s directorial review has grossed 40 times its production budget worldwide.
5. 2 Fast 2 Furious (John Singleton, 2003: $186,409,500)
The first sequel in the eight-film (so far) “Furious” franchise, it’s also the movie that introduced the world to Israeli solidier-turned-“Wonder Woman” Gal Gadot.
Up next: The final four.
4. The Fate of the Furious (F. Gary Gray, 2017: $208,638,555)
While this is a very solid domestic entry in the “Furious” franchise, you have to savor the irony: African Americans comprise a tiny portion of film directors; we all know the argument that African-American movies don’t play overseas. And now we have the first billion-dollar movie from an African American director… and it was driven overwhelmingly by the overseas gross. (Read more here.)
3. The Fantastic Four (Tim Story, 2005: $213,340,600)
With “The Fantastic Four,” Story became the first African-American director of a major super hero movie — and with over $300 million gross on a $100 million budget, earned the right to direct the sequel.
2. Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, 2000: $257,524,100)
This satire of the “Scream” genre was the first in what became a five-film franchise for Miramax/Dimension. Although Wayans only directed the first two, he established a satirical tone that reflected the public appetite for wall-breaking meta commentary — stock and trade today in a meme-driven comedy world, but groundbreaking at the time.
1. Stir Crazy (Sidney Poitier, 1980: $332,896,700)
A serendipitous group of factors led to this Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder R-rated comedy becoming the third-biggest hit released in 1980. (Read more here.)
Note: This is the first in an occasional series looking at top grossing films across history. Box-office rankings will be by adjusted; figures are from Box Office Mojo, and based on annual industry ticket price averages.
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