[28 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s funny to watch the pundits weigh in, humorous in the kind of sick, twisted and very dark way that comedy can occasionally creep up on you. Critics were kept away and still they had comment on how something so obviously mediocre (since it wasn’t screened for them, you see) ended up becoming a $29 million pre-Summer season smash. Many point to the actress (or “talent”, in this case, one Beyonce Knowles), while others suggest that the urban market, well known for supporting their favorites, took some of the money they set aside for Tyler Perry every year and spent it instead on this ersatz thriller. There’s even the suggestion that race - in this case, the African American as victim vs. Caucasian as cruel villain angle - brought in viewers ready to uncork four decades of civil rights struggles on their local Cineplex.
So which is it? Why did Obsessed, a poorly received, sneaking through the backdoor entry into the typically tepid Spring movie cavalcade, become the exception and not the rule. Tracking had the film making something in the middle teens over the 24 April weekend, and yet when all was said and done, that tally was almost double. It’s nothing new. Every year, some movie comes in with mediocre expectations and thoroughly exceeds them. It’s as much a given as some highly hyped mega-hit in the making walking into the blockbuster foray and coming up short - as in ‘someone’s gonna get fired’ short. But there is something a tad more sinister here, a suggestion that seems incongruous to the way we view the social fabric and, instead, signals a jaded and somewhat racist view of the media, and the movies that rely on it for publicity and purpose.
Going back to our man in drag for a second, it’s always stunning to watch young white male journalists joust over why a film like The Family That Preys or Madea Goes to Jail winds up near or at the top of the three day totals. They blame organized church groups and other special interests for stepping in and buying up entire theaters, while others use an insulting “they don’t know any better” sort of rationale. When teens show up en masse for another Saw sequel, PG-13 horror romp, or stupid sex comedy, they aren’t accused of being compelled as a group no matter the title, or even worse, aesthetically out of step with what is proper and right. True, fright films are often dismissed outright because of their content and craven appeal. But when it comes to movies made for a certain niche, the analysis is not so nice.
Though it might sound brazen to suggest it, people like Tyler Perry and producer William Packer (who tackled both Obsessed and the previous stepping hit Stomp the Yard) realize that, like George W. Bush, Hollywood hates black people. Oh, they don’t dislike their money, or their motivation to see something familiar and fun (right Transporter and Fast and Furious series?). No, what Tinsel Town takes away from all ethnic cinema is the same narrow-minded, common denominator view that finds them changing the nationality of the main characters in 21, or allowing M Night Shyamalan to hire non-Asians to play Asian characters in his anime adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since they don’t understand people outside their own xenophobic sphere of influence, they instead dumb everything down to a level of ludicrousness that’s truly offensive.
Granted, no one is saying that Perry or his offshoots make the most complicated or realistic looks at life within their community, but if African Americans were really offended by their antics, they certainly wouldn’t line up to fund their farcical morality plays. No, what a film like First Sunday, or Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins offers is a motion picture experience that actually understands (or tries to understand) the minority experience from the inside out. As Spike Lee has often said, filmmakers of color are the only one’s capable of speaking to their people’s sensibilities. And when you have 85% to 90% of Hollywood run by Caucasians, what does that tell you about the ‘voice’ within the films being made? The stereotyping is so blatant that it’s been the source of several scholarly looks at the industry’s inferred intolerance.
Again, no one is arguing for the artistic merit of a movie aimed specifically at a certain sector of society. There are dozens of high minded entries that fail to resonate with their proposed demographics’ ideals. When you watch one of Tyler Perry’s PLAYS (not the film adaptations of same), you instantly understand the difference. The playwright turned cultural phenomenon doesn’t start with characters or situations, he starts with philosophies and racial identity. He combs through the community and picks out things that matter the most - love, religion, hardship, faith, hope, displacement, togetherness, the inevitability of failure, and the enduring reality that family can overcome almost all such strife. He then pulls out some noted archetypes, plugs in some amazing gospel soul music, and - viola! - an instant hit.
It’s not unlike what someone like Judd Apatow does. Knocked Up is nothing but accidental promiscuity taken to the ultimate biological ends, the shiny white TV goddess given over to a relationship with a schelpy Jewish boy in hopes that he will mature enough to become a meaningful partner. Toss in some stoners, a collection of couples clichés, and enough scatology to make it all seem like a frathouse joke, and you’ve got a movie still praised by critics (including yours truly) as something genuinely clever and insightful. Yet how many would argue that a film like Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? or Meet the Browns isn’t the same thing, just shifted over into the world of African American? Even more homemade efforts like So Fresh, So Clean and Family Reunion, The Movie resonate better than a standard slate of opening weekend offerings.
So it’s not surprising that Beyonce, a superstar within the music business, and a movie geared toward taking the minority position in a standard he said/she said thriller winds up walking away with box office gold. Just like when Perry hired Janet Jackson and Jill Scott to be in one of his films, such tied promotion pushes the media transversely across boundaries it may never experience otherwise. Of course, the kicker comes when you look beyond the numbers and see what is really going on behind the scenes. Obsessed may have been produced by people of color, but it was actually directed by a white man from London (Steve Shill), and written by another member of the majority (David Loughery) responsible for other ‘race’ related material like Lakewood Terrace and Passenger 57. Talk about a twist ending. Maybe Hollywood has finally wised up. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re doing what they do best - carpetbagging a concept that someone did first, and does better.