Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson in the movie "42." (Warner Bros. )
When it comes to our commercial moviegoing, there are some pretty basic staples. Romances. Comedies. Animated adventures. Superhero films. Check the upper echelons of Box Office Mojo in any given year and you’ll find the list rife with them.
But lately a different cinema species seems to be slipping in: the history-lesson film.
“Lincoln,” the exemplar of the form, took in a whopping $182 million during the most recent award season -- more than any other Oscar contender, which tended to contain plenty of other serious overtones, and more than heavily hyped sequels such as “Men in Black 3” and “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” which did not.
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And then once again this weekend we found ourselves very interested in a spin through the charged past. The Jackie Robinson movie “42,” directed by Brian Helgeland and blessed by Rachel Robinson, was forecast to tally about $20 million. It wound up taking in $27.3 million.
No doubt the release was buoyed by a smart marketing campaign from Warner Bros., which not only got the word out on every billboard, sporting event and late-night show in the Lower 48, but did so in an often flashy way. (Financier-producer Thomas Tull told us a few weeks ago that when he first saw the teaser featuring quick cuts and a Jay-Z song, he “bumped a little bit”).
But the film itself also satisfied. Really satisfied. The movie earned a rare grade of A+ on CinemaScore -- a feat for any film, let alone a period drama.
You could be tempted to explain “Lincoln” and “42” as anomalies. But they’re hardly unique. Plenty others of their ilk have also been overperforming in recent years, from “Good Night, and Good Luck” to “Milk” to even, in its way, “Argo.” The lessons of the past, especially the socially relevant 20th century past, have been bringing audiences to theaters in packs.
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This newfound interest in our history can probably be seen at least in part a reaction to the popularity of all entertainment fantastical and otherwordly. Audiences may not want to be told to eat their vegetables. But on a menu where so much seems like dessert, we may not mind a little nutrition -- at least if it comes with a dollop of rich dressing, as “42,” with its crowd-pleasing baseball scenes, certainly does. This is especially true for an older audience; nearly 60% of the moviegoers who turned out for “42” were older than 35.
(Cable television, incidentally, has seen its own version of this. In a landscape dominated by “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” one of the biggest hits to emerge in years was the History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” which last year schooled us in its own historical details.)
But these recent movies, I think, are tapping into something more specific. Because they’re not just lessons about any history. They’re lessons about race. They’re the kind of movies that, while hardly groundbreaking, offer some frankness we haven’t seen from Hollywood very often in the past few decades.
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”Lincoln" showed what the 16th president and abolitionists were up against in ways that had often been glossed over in cinematic accounts of that period, which tended to make the 13th Amendment little more than an afterthought. Even in the PG-13 confines of a studio entertainment such as “42,” there are a number of difficult scenes in which Robinson is taunted mercilessly with the N-word by opposing players and managers.
Yet judging by the success of these movies, the American public might be open to a bit more of this racial frankness than the film business typically assumes.
This desire isn't limited to true stories. “Django Unchained,” fictional though it was, took on the brutality of slavery in ways few films had done before -- the image of Jamie Foxx hung up by his toes abides still. “The Help” offered its own fresh-eyed view into a culture of segregation. Both movies also became outsized hits.
Hollywood producers spend a lot of time crafting improbable, futuristic spectacles -- witness the teasers for “Iron Man 3” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” on the MTV Movie Awards on Sunday night. That won’t stop being true any time soon; those movies will be dominating the box office for a long time to come. But it turns out that to make money in the future, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to look to the past -- even and especially the difficult past.
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