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'The Best Man Holiday': Is the 'overperforming' tag racist?

November 18, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik

It had already been a strong year for films with predominantly black casts—the kind of year that makes bloggers pull out their laptops and write posts about a “new moment.” "Fruitvale Station" was the sensation of the Sundance Film Festival. "The Butler" was a major commercial crossover. "12 Years A Slave” is the art-house breakout of the fall and an early Oscar favorite.

A big holiday hit was hardly needed to make people realize that long-held tropes about movies with black casts—or, for that matter, aimed at black audiences—were bunk.

Yet there was Universal’s “Best Man Holiday” this weekend, ringing up $30.6 million in ticket sales, challenging the juggernaut “Thor” and coming in with a number that would have actually topped the charts on plenty of other weekends.

So the headlines--sometimes stunned, often breathless—followed. The media narrative for black-oriented movies, particularly wide releases, has become familiar. The early tracking is low-ish, the movie comes out and “overperforms,” people are surprised. Lately there’s been a new twist, as people are surprised, or at least annoyed, that anyone is surprised in the first place.

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 “So are we calling The Best Man: Holiday yet another overperforming black film or are we ready to admit that the model is wrong?” tweeted Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List and an outspoken voice on race and Hollywood. Or Defamer's blunt headline: "Critics need to stop being shocked that black films do well."

Some of the surprise was not, of course, about the black issue per se--it was simply to the question of tracking, which was a good bit lower than the final numbers. 

But Leonard and the others have a point. For all the ways they tout the movie's success, many of the assessments are the product of a low-expectation bias. Similar whoa-Nellie reactions followed the release of the Steve Harvey adaptation "Think Like a Man” last year, which topped so-called pre-release estimates with a “Best Man”-like $33-million opening on its way to a $91-million total. 

Implicit in these headlines about "overperforming" is a kind of curious, if not actually prejudicial. assumption. It suggests that black audiences don’t come out in numbers and aren’t able to create a hit (and thus, by extension, aren’t worth making films for) in the first place. As director Lee Daniels said when I interviewed him this summer before the release of “The Butler,” “What does it take for people in Hollywood to realize black audiences will come out to see a movie?” “Does ‘The Butler’ need to make $100 million?” It did. The needle still didn’t  move.

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(Incidentally, Leonard would likely disagree that “The Butler” and “Best Man Holiday” should be grouped together to begin with. He’d be right--to a point—but that’s a subject for another post.)

Still, the eyebrow-raising over the “Best Man Holiday" numbers isn’t without merit, because  the numbers do show something that hadn’t really happened before.

Starring solid but hardly mega-star actors and directed by the not-exactly-household name Malcolm Lee, the film can’t be categorized as a personality-driven branded powerhouse a la a Tyler Perry release or even, for that matter, “Think Like a Man,” which had the Steve Harvey imprimatur.)

“Best Man” also can’t be explained away as fish-in-a-barrel holiday fare; most moviegoers aren't thinking Christmas movies in mid-November.

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