Movies With Black Casts Are Suddenly Red-Hot but Is Hollywood Paying Attention?

“The Perfect Guy,” “War Room” and “Straight Outta Compton” have all topped the box office in recent weeks

Screen Gems

With “The Perfect Guy” taking the No. 1 spot this weekend at the North American box office, it makes five straight weeks that films with primarily African-American casts have surpassed expectations and the competition.

Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy and Morris Chestnut star in the sexy thriller from Sony’s Screen Gems.

The film’s success is noteworthy because Hollywood’s track record of casting minorities in lead movie roles remains dismal. The top stars headlining feature films are almost always white, according to a report released last year by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.

But one industry insider says more diversity could lead to bigger box-office returns.

“The business people that run the film community, the people who invest their money, have a right to display and showcase the images they want to,” Gil Robertson, president and founder of the African-American Film Critics Association, told TheWrap. “But you hope at some point, from a purely business standpoint, that casting African-Americans and other minorities makes for a better return on their investment.”

“War Room” released via Sony’s Affirm Films label, was marketed mainly as a faith-based film. But the majority of its lead actors — T.C. Stallings, Karen Abercrombie and Priscilla Shirer — are African-American.

Affirm Films
Affirm Films

That the creative team and cast behind “Straight Outta Compton” were mainly African-American wasn’t a surprise, given that it’s a biopic about gangsta rap group N.W.A. But what did come as a surprise was that the film’s opening weekend audience was less than half black. A total of 46 percent of attendees were African-American, 23 percent were Caucasian, 21 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and 6 percent “other.”

The film, directed by F. Gary Gray and produced by original N.W.A members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, shattered several records including being the No. 1 R-rated August opening ever and the No.1 musical biopic. It stars Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr. and Aldis Hodge.

But even the success of movies like “Straight Outta Compton” may not change the way Hollywood casts its film.

Todd MacMillan/Universal Pictures
Todd MacMillan/Universal Pictures

While people of color accounted for 36 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, they played just 10 percent of lead roles in the 172 films in 2011 included in the UCLA study. Minority actors also made up less than 10 percent of the casts in most films that year. Movies with 31 percent to 40 percent minority casts — a reflection of how America looks — accounted for just 2 percent of all films.

Outside of “The Perfect Guy,” “Compton” and “War Room,” the other No. 1 movie with an African-American lead this year was “Focus,” the Will Smith comedy that Warner Bros. released in late February.

Given that big picture, it’s hard to get too excited about the recent success of films with black leads. But it does offer reasons for optimism, according to Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.

“Hollywood is nothing if not pragmatic,” Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “If movies with content that speak to audiences that are African-American, or Hispanic, or faith-based do well at the box office, it behooves the studios to make more movies for those under-served markets, and they will.”

He cited the slotting of these films on the weekends between Labor Day and the start of the fall season — typically among the slowest of the year — as smart and an example of that pragmatism. A cynic might say those dates ghettoize the films, but any date is better than no release at all, and several films have made the most of the opportunity.

“The Perfect Guy” audience was roughly 60 percent African-American this weekend, but was also 70 percent female, another under-served audience segment. Sony’s rollout targeted areas with high concentrations of African-Americans, but the film performed strongly in just about every region, according to Rory Bruer, head of distribution at the studio.

“That this movie did well in just about every area it played was one of the most satisfying aspects of this weekend, he said.

Sony, and its Screen Gems label in particular, have a strong record with films starring African-Americans, including the musical “Annie,” in which Jamie Foxx topped a mainly black cast and Denzel Washington‘s action film “The Equalizer,” for which a sequel is in the works. Screen Gems has also had hits with the “Think Like a Man” movies and the “About Last Night” remake with Kevin Hart.

Robertson believes there are practical reasons for other studios to follow Screen Gems’ lead.

“Today, when the biggest movies make the bulk of their money overseas, can it hurt to have an Asian, or an Hispanic, or an African in your movie?” he wondered. “Look at a movie like ‘Furious 7,’ do you think it would have done as well as it did if the cast wasn’t so diverse?”