Last month, Black Panther made history when it became the third-highest-grossing movie domestically, surpassing Titanic. Of the top 10 all-time highest-grossing movies in the country, Black Panther is the only one with a majority-black cast. Other movies that center black characters, like A Wrinkle in Time and Girls' Trip, have also recently done well at the box office.
A new study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan State University suggests that this sort of commercial success for movies with majority-black casts could become the norm—if studios are willing to throw more marketing and financial support behind those movies.
The study surveyed 1,990 participants ages 14 to 17. About half were black and half were white, with both groups being non-Hispanic. Though they account for only 8 percent of the overall population, the study finds that teens in this age range make up 15 percent of the frequent moviegoer population. Participants were asked to consider 12 black-oriented films and three mainstream films and determine whether the target audience was "mostly black moviegoers" or "all moviegoers."
In this study, black-oriented films were defined as "films with 50 percent or more of the main characters being Black or a narrative theme of race, racism, or Black culture." For instance, only 33 percent of Fruitvale Station's cast is black, but given its focus on the death of Oscar Grant and the larger narrative of police brutality against black Americans, the movie is counted as black-oriented.
Both white and black adolescents agreed that the three mainstream movies (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and Captain America: Winter Soldier) were for "all moviegoers." But white and black adolescents saw black-oriented movies differently. Black teens were more likely to say that movies like Fruitvale Station and 42, a biopic about black professional baseball player Jackie Robinson, were mostly for a black audience, while white adolescents were more likely to say those movies were for all moviegoers.
While this study suggests that black films can succeed on a larger platform, it's not clear that a shift in marketing alone would change how black films are perceived. In fact, the change might be partly generational: Amy Bleakley, a senior researcher from the University of Pennsylvania who worked on the paper, suspects that adolescents might find it easier to identify with characters of different backgrounds than older generations do. "I think that those boundaries, ideas, and notions of who people are—and stereotypes—aren't as rigid for adolescents," Bleakley says. "My inclination is that the results would change with older groups."
Furthermore, the study posits that white participants who saw the survey as a test of racial biases might have identified movies with majority-black casts as being for all audiences in order to avoid being viewed negatively by the researchers.
But is it worth it? Should movies with majority-black casts be concerned with being marketed to white teens? Bleakley says the question of to whom such movies should be marketed requires a balance between authenticity and fair exposure. "We want films that are authentic and genuine and do not show typical misrepresentations or stereotypes," she said. "But at the same time, I think exposing adolescents and everyone to stories and ideas and people that are different from them is a good thing."