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.
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