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At-Home Viewers Seek Out Films About the Black Experience, from ‘Just Mercy’ to ‘Waves’

Why is "The Help" currently #1 on Netflix's most-viewed movies list? We have some answers.

Just Mercy

“Just Mercy”

One fascinating trend emerging from the pandemic is that movie watchers stuck at home are responding to new titles that can be made available to them on a dime. As Black Lives Matter protests unfolded across every state in America, audiences searched out films related to these swiftly moving events. The reaction seems to be organic, as many viewers of all stripes are looking for more than entertainment. They seem to be eager to learn and to broaden their awareness of the experiences of their fellow Americans.

Warner Bros. wasted no time in offering free VOD downloads of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Bryan Stevenson biopic “Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan as the crusading prison lawyer who tries to save an Alabama prisoner (Jamie Foxx) from Death Row. The 2019 holiday release delivered $50 million at the global box office, and initial VOD results were strong. So far the film ranks #3 on iTunes.

There’s continuing interest in a range of films about the Black experience — whether history, fiction, or contemporary  — and not just studio titles with stars. “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s acclaimed Oscar-nominated documentary about James Baldwin, has climbed to #21 on the iTunes top 100 movie chart (which changes daily).

Because it’s free, “Just Mercy” is the top iTunes entry. But others for rent, with most at standard prices, are also thriving. The trend became clear on Wednesday’s charts and continued Thursday, with a mix of hits and smaller titles.

Trey Edward Shults’ Florida family tragedy “Waves” (A24), starring Sterling K. Brown and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is next highest at #7, helped by a $0.99 special price for the praised 2019 fall drama, which grossed $2 million worldwide. Focus Features’ breakout hit “Harriet” ($43 million worldwide), starring Best Actress Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo, comes in at #12. Universal’s 2019 release “Queen & Slim” ($47 million worldwide) is #22, with George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” (Fox, $35 million) at #26.

Spike Lee, Do The Right Thing - 1989

Spike Lee in “Do The Right Thing”

Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

Some older titles are represented as well. Fox’s Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” is #31, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is #40, and football classic “Remember the Titans” is #42.

Of the nine titles in the top 50, 40 percent are more than six months old. Without further data on who is watching, this level of placement suggests a large, diverse audience.

Also listed in the top 100 are Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” “The Blind Side,” Best Picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave,” and “The Help,” which is currently #1 on Netflix’s most-viewed movies list. Not all of these titles might be considered on the list of essential films that challenge audiences. But the fact that so many movies about Black characters are being sampled shows a curiosity that has been ignited by this week’s overdue awakening of consciousness.

We’ll see where the numbers trend beyond iTunes in the next week.

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