White people like movies. Black people like movies. But do white people like black movies? Indiana University telecommunications professor Andrew J. Weaver investigated in “The Role of Actors’ Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies,” published recently in the Journal of Communication. The findings partly confirm what Hollywood insiders already know: The audiences for “Larry Crowne” and Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family” may not overlap.
“It becomes a vicious cycle,” Weaver writes. “Producers are hesitant to cast minorities in race-neutral romantic roles because of a fear that the White audience will perceive the films as ‘not for them,’ but White audiences perceive romantic films with minorities as ‘not for them’ because they seldom see minorities in race-neutral romantic roles.”
Though the study found that a romantic movie featuring an interracial couple “almost always revolves around race as a theme,” all is not lost for those dreaming of a colorblind box office. When examining films of other genres, Weaver found that whites who don’t go to the movies frequently are less prejudiced against films with black casts. They “may not be as quick to make the association between certain well-known Black actors and ‘Black movies,’ ” he writes. “Frequent movie viewers may be more likely to make the connection between the actor and a Black theme, regardless of whether such a theme is actually present, and as a result may be less interested in seeing the film.”
What about Will Smith, Weaver asks, an actor “thought to have transcended race in the minds of the White audience”? Smith’s 2004 sci-fi flick “I, Robot” — co-starring Bridget Moynahan as a sort-of love interest — grossed $347 million. “Hitch,” a 2005 rom-com starring Smith and Eva Mendes, chosen because “casting a White actress opposite Smith was . . . seen as a significant risk,” earned even more. Did “I, Robot” earn less because of its black-white pairing? Or because people prefer “Hitch” co-star Kevin James to Moynahan?
It’s complicated. “It is not always the case that viewers are drawn to same-race actors,” Weaver writes. “Other factors clearly play a role.”
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