“Think Like a Man” shatters box office myths about black films

Gabrielle Union, one of the stars of "Think Like a Man"

Gabrielle Union, one of the stars of "Think Like a Man"

Ensemble romantic comedy Think Like a Man is generating lots of buzz after ending The Hunger Games’ month-long run as #1 at the box office (despite playing in much fewer theaters), and almost doubling initial projections of its opening weekend take. The film’s success challenges conventional Hollywood wisdom about the limited profitability and appeal of movies with predominantly black casts. Though the racial break down of audiences who viewed Think Like a Man this weekend is unknown, its unexpected box office haul suggests that the movie had a significant degree of “crossover” appeal.

Sidebar: I’m just going to note how very weird it is to describe white audiences viewing “black” or “urban” films as being “crossover” audiences, while people of color viewing the white washed landscape that is movies for “general audiences” is just…normal, I guess? Doesn’t anyone in Hollywood ever feel a little uncomfortable with this terminology?

To be fair, it’s true that white viewers tend to be less interested in movies with a significant minority presence. But while the industry loves to put the marginalization of such “niche” films solely on white audiences and claim the bottom line as the only reason the business isn’t more diverse, this is is just one piece of the puzzle. White audiences don’t see themselves as the intended audience for minority films, but much of this can be attributed to marketing and distribution that focuses exclusively on minority audiences.

Subtle and overt racism in the form of limited financing, marketing, and distribution – or simple refusal to green light certain projects, as with Red Tails – work to ensure that white audiences who might be interested in these films never see them. The assumption that such movies have limited appeal turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when they don’t receive the same exposure to a broad range of audiences as comparable movies with predominantly or all white casts.

Here’s the funny thing – despite Hollywood concerns about losing money on “niche” films, there’s a strong case to be made that the industry’s insistence that black films can’t be “crossover successes” dulls the ability of studios to make smart financial decisions about which projects to invest in, and how. The unwillingness to put as much into minority films or market them as aggressively as white films could very well be costing studios money.

Think Like a Man is a great example of this: its success shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given all the points in its favor. It had a built-in fan base in readers of its source material, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, the (believe it or not) best-selling relationship how-to it by comedian (and, *cough* thrice-married) Steve Harvey. It was “the best testing film in Hollywood” going into its opening weekend, with with virtually unheard of levels of favorable responses from racially diverse pre-screening audiences. It was produced by Will Packer, a black producer whose last three films have all opened at #1. And Think Like a Man benefitted from a clever, unorthodox marketing strategy that combined grassroots efforts, social media campaigns, and talk show appearances to both turn out larger black audiences and to get the film on the radar of audiences outside its expected niche. In short, it was marketed differently, and more broadly than most “black films” – and for certain audiences wasn’t really marketed as a “black film.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise given all these factors that Think Like a Man did so well at the box office. Yet it’s still “simultaneously confounded and astonished” Hollywood – a response justified only by an entrenched mentality about “black” or “urban” films that clearly leads studio execs to drastically lowball the box office potential of such films, even when the signs point to a hit.

I have mixed feelings about the performance of Think Like a Man. I want to support the success of a film with a mostly black cast, a black producer, and a black director, especially one that so handily beat the odds and expectations for it. But I can’t help but wonder why it had to be this film that successfully crossed over. It may be a hit with a lot of black women, but there are plenty of us who aren’t feeling the patriarchal, anti-woman relationship advice that drives its plot (interesting side note: while its audience was over 60% women, Think Like a Man got even more favorable reviews from men who saw it than from women).

I’ll be honest, I’m not going to see Think Like a Man, for reasons other black women have mentioned (and also because I have a toddler and babysitters are too expensive to waste just any movie). But it’s fair to ask if the overly sexist title makes the film only seem more retrograde by comparison in a genre of movies that’s…actually pretty retrograde in general, almost inherently so. Is Think Like a Man really much more sexist or gender essentialist than He’s Just Not That Into You, or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? Probably not.

On the one hand, patriarchy sucks. On the other hand, hey, black folks can make gender essentialist patriarchal movies that “general audiences” are interested in, just like white folks! Progress? A tiny bit?

I hate to be a downer, but I don’t think the success of Think Like a Man is going to significantly change prospects for minority films or filmmakers. It really only has implications for other movies just like it. It’ll spawn at least one sequel – probably more – and maybe give other romantic comedies with mostly minority casts a chance to be marketed to a broader audience. And it’s kind of sad that what in industry terms amounts to fairly small potatoes – a run of the mill romantic comedy with a $12 million budget – is such a big deal for “crossover” black film.

I’d be a lot more excited, not only if the content and subject of the movie were better or more sophisticated (I mean, really this is what white audiences will come out to see a black cast with so much talent do?), but also if there were any signs of studios green lighting more risky projects with black leads or mostly black casts. Where’s the big budget thriller with a black lead who isn’t a lone Will Smith in a sea of white characters? With a, gasp, black female lead, even? Where are the black Katnisses? Or, though I shudder to think of it, even the black Bella Swans? I’ll be more ready to celebrate when Hollywood is ready to spend the same levels of money on a black-led or black-created film as it does on Hunger Games.

Photo by nickstep, used under a Creative Commons License.

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About tfc

T.F. Charlton is a Boston transplant, occasionally acerbic wordsmith, and Barnacle's social media manager. She blogs about fundamentalist race, gender, and sexuality issues at arewomenhuman.me and tweets too much at @graceishuman.

25. April 2012 by tfc
Categories: Movies, People of Color in Media, Women in Media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 comments

Comments (11)

  1. Pingback: 4-26-12 Links Roundup | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  2. This is a great read. I am on the fence about seeing this movie. I am actually more on the “no” side of the fence. Although i have heard that it is funny, I am not a fan of romantic comedies at all. Secondly, I really don’t want to put any money is Steve Harvey’s wallet.

    Many of my friends have gone to see it and have decided to support it because of the majority black cast and production team but honestly, I have long moved away from the days of supporting someone in entertainment because they are black. If the work and story doesn’t appeal to me, then I tend to stay away from it. I also let my own personal politics make a lot of decisions for me….steve harvey rubs me the wrong way!

    • Thanks for the comment, Keke! I think it’s definitely tough to balance wanting to support black creatives with concerns about the quality of the content they produce (especially in terms of how it represents us). And unfortunately the issue of representations puts an additional burden on black creatives – e.g., white producers don’t have to deal with the same criticism about how their work represents white people. But I don’t see any way around the need for that criticism as long as there’s still a shortage of black characters and stories in mainstream media.

  3. Great post. I briefly considered going to see the film, mostly in order to make a more informed judgment of it and discuss it in real time with others who will have seen it. But I really didn’t want to support the story of this film, especially not in the theatres. I do love many of the actors featured in this film, but the few parts of the book I deigned to read were silly to me, and I could only imagine the outlandish ways that Hollywood and a ridiculous book would combine into a film. No thanks.

    I will most likely see it when it is available to rent or stream online, but talented black actors aside, I’m not going to support Steve Harvey’s gendered bullsh*t. I wouldn’t go see a film with white actors if it were a poor or silly story, just to support white actors. So I won’t do the same for black actors. That’s my personal take in this particular situation.

    • Thanks for the comment, Aviva! I tend to agree with you, I don’t think it’s necessary or even helpful to support black creatives regardless of whether or not the content they produce appeals to us. Like you I’ll probably watch TLAM as a rental, but it’s not something I’m interested in wasting a trip to the theater on.

  4. I’m with Keke. Me and Steve Harvey maybe black and an adult man [and I use that term loosely for me especially], but I practically disagree with everything that comes out of his mouth.

    Even so, if the movie was a genre that interested me, I would think about checking out after reading reviews or at least renting the DVD, but I just don’t enjoy romantic comedies that go the typical route of treating women as a completely different species. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I’ve spent way too much time in my life guilt tripping myself into enjoying things I wouldn’t otherwise just because the creator was black or the cast is all black.

    Am I possibly impeding on some progress? Perhaps, but in the end it’s all entertainment, and there’s no point sitting through something you know you aren’t going to enjoy. However, I won’t hold anything against those that decide to go through in order for blacks to make more progress in Hollywood. We all make choices in what we consume for one reason or another and I can’t be concerned about it. I can really only worry about my own choices at this point.

    • Thanks for the comment, Notebook! I doubt sitting out on Think Like a Man will hurt black films in general. The problem isn’t the performance of any one film, it’s an industry mentality that prejudges all “niche” films as not of interest to “general” audiences. As I wrote in an earlier post, even when films like this perform unexpectedly well, they don’t tend to change industry attitudes about the potential of films with non-traditional leads or casts. They get treaded as exceptions to the rule.

  5. I’m shocked people would call the movie patriarchal and sexist when they haven’t even seen it… It’s actually quite balanced in its approach to gender-relations. The script isn’t based very much on Harvey’s book (which is admittedly a good thing, since his book was pretty sexist) but more on the work of Kevin Hart — who, by the way, did a fantastic job at making a hilarious rom-com.

    For what it’s worth, my girlfriend liked the movie too. We both agree that it talks honestly about relationships without demeaning men OR women. Moreover, we feel like the criticisms of this film only make it stronger, encouraging people to check it out and decide for themselves. Racism may prevent it from any awards, but success will breed more efforts like it. Maybe even better ones.

    As for the author’s belief that “Think Like A Man” lacks sophistication or good content… Go see the movie first. You’ll be surprised.

    • Thanks for the comment, Zek. I appreciate the feedback! I think Harvey’s book is pretty clearly patriarchal and sexist, but like I said, I do wonder if keeping “Think Like a Man” as the title of the movie, given that it is rather loosely based on the book, makes it seem more overtly sexist than it actually is. From everything I’ve read it seems that the plot is pretty typical romantic comedy fare – gender essentialism is characteristic of the whole genre, not just this one movie. The one difference is the fact that Harvey appears in the film and there’s quite a bit of product placement for the book; I don’t know that I’m down to support something like that.

      As for content and sophistication – I wish more crossover audiences would come out to see brilliant films like Pariah. I’m sure Think Like a Man is entertaining – I’ll probably catch it on DVD myself – but it is a bit sad to me that brilliant black creators like Dee Rees have to struggle to get a fraction of the attention or revenue that Think Like a Man is getting.

  6. Well I will be honest. I am not seeing this movie for the same reason I didn’t see Red Tails. I don’t watch these types of movies in the theater or on TV. I don’t like historical movies. I don’t like romantic comedies. Why should I go out of my way to support a movie because there are black people in it that I won’t enjoy.

    But if someone wants to make another Traitor or Bourne Identity with a black lead, I am so there.

  7. I would encourage you to see the movie so that you can make a more informed opinion about it and it’s implications for future black films. The book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, though I think is well intentioned, is sexist. I read it, it really pissed me off, so I didn’t want to see the movie. But my friend dragged me out to see Think Like a Man and I can say I was pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, the vestiges of Steve Harvey’s sexist ideology still lurks in the corners of this movie (see Taraji Henson’s strong black woman character who I most relate to and was most insulted by). However, the male characters are dealt quite the heavy hand in this film and Kevin Hart is just plain funny. There are some valid points, there are some frustrating patriarchal archetypes at play as well. (NB: All the characters who gleefully and insulting point out how Taraji is “like a man” because she’s independently successful ugh!!!!). However, I had really LOW expectations, and it was better than I expected and funny to boot.

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