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February 25th, 2009
06:45 PM ET

“Slumdog”: A lesson for Hollywood?

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

“Slumdog Millionare” won eight Oscars on Sunday night, including Best Picture, in addition to the four Golden Globes it won earlier this year. Its commercial success and critical success contradicts the long-held conventional wisdom about what does and doesn’t sell at the box office.

So, will the success of this film - a story about an orphan growing up in the slums of Mumbai - translate in Hollywood to an era of increased diversity of characters on the big screen? If the past is prologue, it’s probably best not to hold our breath.

The powers-that-be in Hollywood have historically presumed that people of color will happily flock to watch movies featuring white characters, but that "mainstream" - read “white” - audiences won't relate to stories about people of color.

Until Sunday, making films like “Slumdog Millionaire” has seemed to make very little sense financially.

Actor Will Smith offered a rare glimpse into the American world of casting a few years ago. While promoting the romantic comedy “Hitch,” he told The Birmingham Post, that the decision to cast Latina actress Eva Mendes as his love interest was a deliberate racial calculation on behalf of the studio:

"There's sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, people around the world don't want to see it,” Smith told the British newspaper. “We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So, the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up - that'll work around the world, but it's a problem in the U.S."

So, Mendes was the studio’s Goldilocks choice: not too black, not too white - just right.

Even when Hollywood adapts stories in which the original characters are people of color, its producers have a tendency to “white”-wash the characters to make them appeal to the white demographic.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon is the film 21. Based on the non-fiction book Bringing Down the House, this was a true story about a blackjack team from MIT that bilked casinos of millions of dollars. The actual team was led by Asian-American students, but the film turned almost all of the students into white characters, leading to criticism from the book's author.

“Slumdog” has grossed nearly $100 million at the box office so far, suggesting that "mainstream" audiences are willing to spend money watching stories about non-white people. The film’s commercial success suggests that Hollywood’s conventional wisdom has been wrong, and that the elements of good storytelling truly are universal.

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Ian Gordon

    If I was a white american I would be offended by Hollywood. They assume that white people are racist and can't handle interracial couples?
    But then again it's a business and they do what they want with it, even if it means losing money, it's their prerogative to do so. Fact is only about 10% of earth's population is white, though of course it's a bigger part in the USA but it's not growing as fast as the minorities. Hollywood, the world is changing, change with please.

    February 26, 2009 at 7:50 am |
  2. Ian Gordon

    If I was a white american I would be offended by Hollywood. They assume that white people are racist and can't handle interracial couples?
    But then again it's a business and they do what they want with it, even if it means losing money, it's their prerogative to do so. Fact is only about 10% of earth's population is white, though of course it's a bigger part in the USA but it's not growing as fast as the minorities. Hollywood, they world is changing, change with please.

    February 26, 2009 at 7:50 am |
  3. Kim

    Who cares what race or nationality the movie actor's are and it's a grand story well directed with excellent acting !

    February 26, 2009 at 1:58 am |
  4. Christina Ramirez

    that's not just true in the movies but in life if there are a group of people working in a restaurant in an "all white area of town' they tend to train the white or lighter people for front positions and the darker people are reduced to cooks or stock persons. hopefully this movie will change not only Hollywood's misconception of what people want but other industries as well
    just don't hold your breath for it

    February 26, 2009 at 12:31 am |
  5. Luis

    Third lowest Oscar television rating sof all time, and it wasn't competing against anybody.

    Nobody wants to hear left wing propaganda anymore from Hollywood.

    Just wait until you start seeing Hollywood ask for a bailout.

    General Electric has denied Steven Spielberg money for a film production. Good Job G.E.!!!!

    February 25, 2009 at 11:09 pm |
  6. Isabel, Brazil

    I didn't know this particularity of the film Hitch and liked much. I'm not an inveterate fan of Will Smith, but I gsoto very specific in this movie despite being considered "romantic" and "innocent".

    Good to see Hollywood cheering and valuing a difference. This shows a new time where everyone will win, despite some not agree with that.
    I, especially, as Latin, I like the mixture of races and I think this just has to enrich both in the arts and in interpersonal relationships.

    Great post!

    February 25, 2009 at 9:55 pm |
  7. xtina, chicago IL

    I wasn't even thinking about the actors/characters being non-white in this movie. I just saw it as a intense movie with great love in it.

    February 25, 2009 at 9:02 pm |
  8. Dane Walton II

    That's why I can't watch any Will Smith movie: he'll accept blatant rascism to make money, not to mention how crappy they are. That disgusts me, and he's sure to spot his son through the industry. .but hey, that's just more money for him, right?

    February 25, 2009 at 8:25 pm |
  9. ace

    To further contextualize this phenomenon that "mainstream" – read "white" audiences are expected to not flock to see films starring people of color, I think its worth noting that white Americans may still want to see themselves as #1. Rich, smart, attractive, in heathly loving relationships. In Slumdog, perhaps it was easy for white Americans to absorb a poor Indian and his story. In 21, the smart Asians dissappeared and became white. White supremacy, it seems, has not left the priority list of Hollywood decision makers.

    February 25, 2009 at 8:06 pm |
  10. Peter Coffin

    It's what happens when you make good movies and promote them. People watch them.

    February 25, 2009 at 8:02 pm |
  11. Annie Kate

    A good story brings people in no matter what the racial origins of the actors and actresses in them. The film industry needs to give the American public a little more credit – we don't all like stories about white boys in a souped up car with a loud mouth sheriff trying to catch them.

    February 25, 2009 at 7:44 pm |
  12. Antoine P. Brunson

    The world is diverse and there are universals truths. All people love. All people have heartache. All lives are relevant. It's time to move away from the antiquated idea that "all White" sales. Good stories have universal appeal. Good stories sale. And good stories may involve Whites , but by no means has to be all White.

    February 25, 2009 at 7:35 pm |
  13. Dephlogisticated Sinovium

    I can't wait to see this movie. I have heard so many good things about it. "The Dark Knight" is a great movie and I love other modern Hollywood films like it, but sometimes it is just nice to have a change of pace and watch a film like "Slumdog." I agree, Hollywood should take note. Blockbuster action films aren't always the best recipe to sell tickets.

    February 25, 2009 at 7:28 pm |