In terms of box-office grosses, this is an extraordinary week for Hollywood: The No. 1 movie in America features a mixed-race cast.
Granted, that movie is Fast Five, the fifth installment of the Fast and Furious action series. Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris called these films “loud, ludicrous and visually incoherent,” but added that they are “the most progressive force in Hollywood today.”
As Morris noted, nonwhite actors played major roles in only two of the 30 top-grossing films of 2010. Studio executives believe white audiences prefer to see white characters, while black audiences want to see black characters, so they increasingly make films for each demographic.
Are they being too cynical? Newly published research on racial statistics in the realm of the entertainment industry suggests the answer is, sadly, no. But it also suggests this troubling tendency may largely be the effect of the studios’ all-too-effective marketing strategies.
White moviegoers seem convinced that films with black stars are not made for them; they are not the films' intended audience.
Andrew Weaver of the Indiana University Department of Telecommunications explored how the racial makeup of the cast impacts the preferences of white filmgoers. Writing in the Journal of Communication, he described an experiment in which 68 white college undergraduates read 12 fictional synopses of new romantic comedies.
“Web pages were created for each movie, and the race of the characters was manipulated to create six versions: an all-white cast; a 70 percent white cast with two white leads; a 70 percent white cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with two black leads; and an all-black cast,” he noted.
After looking over the pages, which featured small photos of the principal cast members, participants were asked a series of questions about their movie-going habits, racial attitudes and desire to see each movie, either in a theater or at home.
“The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,” Weaver reports. “Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity.”
A separate study that used the same technique to assess non-romantic films produced different results. For the participants, 79 white undergraduates, the race of the actors did not influence their desire to see the film.
But a follow-up study by Weaver, which has yet to be published, suggests that result may be an outlier. In it, he used the same technique, but his participants were drawn from a more diverse group in terms of age and education. Specifically, he analyzed the responses of 150 white people between the ages of 18 and 69.
“White participants were more interested in seeing films with white actors than films with black actors,” he found. “This main effect was quite robust, occurring regardless of gender, age, previous movie viewing or the genre of the movie.
“Moreover, this effect was significant despite the very subtle race manipulation. The movie synopses, which were front and center on the page, were unaltered. The only manipulation was in the thumbnail pictures attached to the actors’ names.”
Is this evidence of continuing racist attitudes on the part of white Americans? Not necessarily. Participants were asked whether they perceived they were similar to the characters, and whether they considered the movie’s plot relevant to their own lives. Weaver found the race of the actors did not significantly affect their replies.
However, the actors’ race did have a big impact on another issue: Whether the participants felt they were part of the intended audience for the film. Their likelihood to agree decreased significantly when 70 percent (or 100 percent) of the cast was black, and they were less likely to express interest in seeing those films.
This suggests to Weaver that white reluctance to see films with black actors can be overcome. The perception that “this movie is not for me” could be changed “if more mainstream movies cast minorities,” he writes. If multiracial casts became the norm and movies were marketed to all demographics, the stigma could fade away. Thus, racial statistics in this area could shift.
This won’t happen anytime soon: Hollywood is famously risk-averse. Then again, the enormous success of Fast Five, which made more than $83 million domestically in its first weekend of release, may inspire other producers to take a risk on multiracial casts — perhaps even for films in which the real stars aren’t the cars.