During a recent speech to about 50 students at a mostly white high school, I made reference to the movie "Fight Club" and asked if anyone had seen it. The lone raised hand belonged to a sheepish-looking black youth--one of seven minority students in the room.
Poor baby. He must not have realized that "Fight Club" is a white movie.
The controversial Brad Pitt-Edward Norton vehicle hasn't a single black star or major character. But the African American student, as well as my equally black sons, are so young and clueless that they felt what matters about "Fight Club" isn't the protagonists' skin color but that it's a testosterone-dripping, brutality- and explosion-filled guyfest.
But that's nothing compared with what I saw at a recent screening of "The Best Man." A pair of fifty-something white suburbanites wandered in, took their seats--and remained in them for the entire movie!
Ryland and Jo Reamy seemed not to notice that the flick's entire attractive cast is black. Afterword, Jo Reamy called the movie "delightful" as she dabbed at eyes still misty from the movie's romantic climax. Reamy said she would "absolutely" recommend the film to her friends.
Now if you thought the term "white movie" sounded foolish to describe "Fight Club" despite its actors and storyline being overwhelmingly white, I can relate. Yet major publications labeled "The Best Man"--which beat out Martin Scorsese's much-hyped "Bringing Out the Dead" and three other new releases as the weekend's number one movie--a "black movie" because its stars are black and its story is about African Americans.
I understand how some might describe the movie, which is about love, sex and forgiveness among twenty-something friends gathered for a wedding, as a "Big Chill with African Americans." Unfortunately, Entertainment Weekly called it a "Big Chill" for African Americans, a limiting description that outraged filmmaker Malcolm D. Lee and surprises the Reamys.
"The movie was so well done, you just forgot" about the characters' race, Jo Reamy, 59, told me. "Everyone could relate to it."
Of course. Few would describe "The Best Man" as high art. But it is warm-hearted, funny, racy enough to make its family values message palatable to young folks and less preposterous than, say, "Runaway Bride."
And the beautiful people on-screen you'll fantasize about later are black.
Which shouldn't be a big deal. I mean, I recommended "Notting Hill" to my friends as the year's best sigh-inducing, estrogen-surging girlflick. Would I have liked Hugh Grant's or Julia Roberts's entourage of pals and lovers to have included someone black or even vaguely brown?
Sure. But the story touched me, much as "The Best Man" touched the Reamys.
So tell me, why was the audience of the crowd-pleasing "The Best Man" 85 percent black?
Because precious few white folks are like the Rylands, who read great reviews for a "black movie" and decided to see it. Because many whites fear shelling out $7 to see a movie whose potential anti-racism theme might preach to or admonish them or wrack them with guilt, such as last year's challenging flop starring one of America's most, well, "Beloved" women, Oprah Winfrey.
Because too few white folks do what black folks like my sons, the student and I--not to mention Latinos and Asians and other minorities--do all the time: assume that a movie whose protagonists don't look and sound exactly like us could be something we'll enjoy.
Sometimes, I can't blame them. I can't tell you how often I've gone to black-themed movies and cringed at their scattershot profanity, crude sexual content or poor writing or production values.
But so-called black movies don't have a monopoly on cursing, inanity or tackiness. And even acclaimed, beautifully rendered films with black casts and serious themes such as "Eve's Bayou," "Devil in a Blue Dress" and "Daughters of the Dust" attracted small numbers of white moviegoers. "Black movies" with the largest crossover appeal--Eddie Murphy's "The Nutty Professor" and "Coming to America" both of which grossed over $128 million--were comedic fluff.
So it's nearly impossible to get serious, black-themed features made.
But maybe the light-as-a-leaf "The Best Man" will help, proving that a darker-hued romantic comedy can also attract whites. Maybe the same nation that in the '80s made a TV show about a cute and complex black family a true ratings phenomenon will start spending hard cash to see Huxtable types on the big screen.
Maybe more white folks will learn what the rest of us had to figure out long ago: that it's instructive, entertaining and fun to move out of one's real-life comfort zone to embrace stories about folks you might not meet. Wouldn't it be great if this weekend, a more diverse audience saw "The Best Man" and learned that 25-foot close-ups of gorgeous faces and bodies that aren't white can be a treat?
Sure, because I want to see more movies like it. And the only color that matters to the people who make black movies, white movies and every other color of movies is green.