“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” ~ Viola Davis during her acceptance speech at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 2015, after winning the trophy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
And that quote, in a nutshell, answers the question posed in the title of this article.
On March 12, The Hollywood Reporter (THR) published a piece with the provocative headline, “If Jennifer Lawrence Can’t Open a Movie, Who Can?”
This was in reference to the relatively unimpressive box office numbers of Lawrence’s latest, the thriller Red Sparrow, a $70 million picture that has grossed just over $40 million domestically. Its unlucky opening weekend saw it get buried by the cultural phenomenon that is Black Panther, which was in its 3rd week in release, and still drawing huge numbers. Sparrow opened in 2nd place that weekend with $16.8 million, and a per screen average of just over $5,000, which is dismal for the opening weekend for a high profile movie with a perceived A-lister at the lead.
The THR article also highlights 2 other recent under-performing Lawrence pictures in Mother! (2017) and Passengers (2016).
The piece itself isn’t entirely about Lawrence’s A-list box office woes, but the author (Stephen Galloway) uses that as a launching pad to pen a treatise on what he argues might be “the death of the movie star,” without directly answering the question he asks in the attention-getting title.
The article was shared quite a bit, generating much discussion as can be imagined. But it was really actress Tessa Thompson’s Twitter reply to it (“Lupita Nyong’o”) that inspired this article.
— Tessa Thompson (@TessaThompson_x) March 12, 2018
Thus, I was prompted to wonder what black actress today, in 2018, might be able to “open” a movie; those superstars who can generate broad awareness and audience attendance on opening weekend, which has long been very crucial to a film’s success, as studio costs (budgets and marketing specifically) continue to soar to astonishing levels. A weak opening can have longer term detrimental effects on a studio’s bottomline. Of course, there’s also the importance of an actor/actress’ international star-power – the ability to open a film around the world (outside the USA) – in order to be a member of the exclusive list. And given the well-documented significant discrepancy between the opportunities afforded to actors and actresses via Hollywood’s casting process (one that also exists when considering the opportunities given to white actresses and black actresses), the list has, for a long time, comprised of mostly men (and most of them white).
I’m reminded of the Esquire Magazine 2009 profile of Relativity Media and its chief, which was titled Ryan Uses Math to Make Movies – a rather discouraging read. At the center of the article was the then 34-year old Kavanaugh, a onetime venture capitalist, who was running Relativity Media LLC, which was sitting on an estimated $2 billion in liquid assets, much of it courtesy of a New York-based hedge fund, with another $13 billion more where that came from. As the article stated, the majority of the movies made by studio giants like Sony, Universal and Warner Bros – about three quarters of them, in fact – relied on financing from Relativity. The company’s investment decision-making was based on the results that came from what was described as an “elaborate Monte Carlo simulation,” whose job was to assess risk, after being fed a variety of variables – thousands of rows of data that included items like principal actor, director, genre, budget, release date, rating, and much more – that are run through different combinations to eventually return details on critical data, including: the percentage of time the movie will be profitable, the average profit for each profitable run, the best weekend for the movie to be released, the box-office effect of an R rating versus PG-13, and most importantly, with respect to this article, what actors/actresses would all-but ensure a return on their investment.
“Everything has to run on the principle of profit,” Kavanaugh said. “We’ll never let creative decisions rule our business decisions. If it doesn’t fit the model, it doesn’t get done.”
To summarize, the message then was, content be damned; the *new black* was to plug information into an Excel spreadsheet, and use whatever results were returned, to determine what films got made and who got to star in them. And when one group of actors (black actresses in this case) aren’t given the opportunity to actually star in movies, and in effect build resumes that would raise awareness of their names, and put them among the defaults, a simulation like Kavanuagh’s likely omitted them entirely. And I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this strategy is still in use at the studio level.
In my reply to Tessa Thompson’s tweet, not entirely convinced, I referenced the above quote from Viola Davis and said that I would like to see Nyong’o given the opportunity to prove that she can open a movie, as the lead, with a solid script and director of course. Because, as it stands, looking over her resume, there’s no obvious indication that she is indeed a box office draw, and can open a movie. The closest opportunity she’s had since winning the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave was with Disney’s 2016 drama Queen of Katwe. While she wasn’t the film’s lead, her name, face and popularity were instrumental in how the film was marketed to audiences. But ticket sales were light, with the movie grossing less than $10 million domestically throughout its entire 15-week run. Although in her defense, this simply wasn’t a film that was expected to be a box office blockbuster. A biographical drama based on the life of one of the first titled female players in Ugandan chess history – who most Americans probably hadn’t heard of – Disney treated Katwe more like an arthouse flick, first opening it in a limited theatrical release in just 52 theaters across the USA, and would later expand it to over 1200 theaters. It simply didn’t and probably wasn’t expected to register with mainstream American audiences, opening in 7th place (for its wide release) with $2.5 million.
And while Nyong’o co-stars in the box office behemoth that is Black Panther, she’s part of an ensemble cast of actors, in a much anticipated movie based on a popular comic book character. So the success of that film can’t be attributed solely to her presence in it.
But again, it comes down to opportunity – and she really hasn’t been given any genuine opportunities to carry a film at the studio level and join one of Hollywood’s most exclusive lists, despite what appears to be an immense (and growing) popularity. After the strength, presence and physicality she displayed in Black Panther, it’s a wonder that she (and, quite frankly, her co-star Danai Gurira) aren’t fielding offers to star in the next spy thriller, or action-adventure franchise. Although maybe they are, and the news just hasn’t been announced yet.
Nyong’o will play the female lead, opposite Josh Gad, in the upcoming horror comedy Little Monsters, which doesn’t have a release date at this time.
So if Nyong’o isn’t a box office sure-thing, who might be?
First, some related history that will provide necessary foundation.
The 2018 Best Actress Academy Awards nominees were entirely devoid of black actresses. But that really shouldn’t have been a surprise, given the number of studio-backed theatrically released films in the USA in 2017, with black actresses in leading lady roles (which can be counted on a single hand). It must be noted that women, in general, are among the under-represented, but it’s significantly worse for women of color; in this specific case, black women, given Shadow and Act’s stated interests.
In the 90 long years of the Oscars, black actresses have been nominated for the Best Actress award just 11 times. And those 11 times yielded just 1 win. This is indicative of much.
On the big screen, black actresses continue to be relegated to mostly supporting roles – the supportive, though sometimes no-nonsense best friend; the sympathetic teacher; the motivating social worker; the caregiver; the spiritual being; the girlfriend or wife, etc; see Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water as one high profile example last year. In fact, black actresses have found far more success in leading roles on the small screen (television), carrying entire series with performances showcasing a variety of representations of what it means to be a black woman, with volume and across genres. So if you’re looking for varied depictions of black women’s lives unfolding in lead performances on screen, television is where you’ll find them. It puts film to shame. And many of these series feature black women in key creative or influential roles behind the scenes as well, and are supported by (majority black) female viewers who have proven to be fiercely loyal when appreciative of content that’s put in front of them – a loyalty that can mean big ratings and ad dollars for a network; also a loyalty that can translate to the big screen, but is still sadly, if puzzlingly untapped.
Throughout 2017, there were just 3 studio-backed films released theatrically in the USA with black actresses in leading lady roles: Girls Trip (Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish), Kidnap (Halle Berry), and Everything, Everything (Amandla Stenberg). To be sure, there were a handful of independent films that premiered on the film festival circuit in 2017, and were later released, including Crown Heights, as well as Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis’ Félicité, and Til Death Do Us Part, all of which feature strong leading lady performances, but, unfortunately, weren’t seen by most Americans. The marketing budgets for each was likely a pittance compared to the millions a studio can spend on a single film; and none of them screened widely enough.
Keep in mind that around 728 movies were released theatrically in 2017. The optics with regards to the percentage of the 728 that featured black women in lead roles, are simply terrible. And while 2018’s studio feature film calendar isn’t entirely set yet (there are always new additions, date changes, etc), much of it is firm, and based on what is currently public, research says that there will be a many more (although still comparatively low) Hollywood-backed feature films with black actresses in starring/leading lady roles, on whose reputation and box office appeal each movie will be promoted: the already-released Proud Mary (Taraji P. Henson), Acrimony (Taraji P. Henson again), Traffik (Paula Patton), Widows (Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo), Sweetheart (Kiersey Clemons), The Darkest Minds (Amandla Stenberg), The Hate U Give (Amandla Stenberg again), and Fast Color (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Little Monsters (Lupita Nyong’o) isn’t a studio picture.
There likely will be others that we don’t yet know about, or that aren’t dated at this time (like the Harriet Tubman film starring Cynthia Erivo, which was announced in January of 2017, although it hasn’t begun production yet and just might be dead; and Tika Sumpter starring in the drama/thriller The Pages, which is listed as currently in post-production, although it doesn’t appear to have Hollywood studio backing). There are also several other projects with black women leads at some stage of development/production that very well could be introduced in 2018.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that there will be even more films financed and produced outside the studio system, premiering in 2018, including a handful that have previously been profiled on this platform, like S&A contributor Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn, and Ms. Black & Sexy herself Numa Perrier’s Jezebel – both black women artists making their feature film directorial debuts, telling personal stories starring young black women. And there are many others who you will read about in later articles.
Now back to the question of whether there’s a black actress today who can open a studio picture. Let’s look at those very few black actresses who’ve actually been given the opportunity to lead and carry studio-backed movies.
In recent times (the 21st century) none has gotten more opportunities than Halle Berry.
The first black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress (it took only 74 years for that to happen), Berry’s famous speech included the proclamation that her win on that glorious night signaled that “the door” had “now been opened” for every “faceless women of color” who dreamed of being an actress in Hollywood, and on the grandest stage of them all. But Berry would sing an entirely different tune 15 years later when, during an interview with Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth at Cannes Lions 2017, the actress revealed that she was disappointed in how little had changed since her historic Oscar win in 2002. Berry soberly admitted that her industry milestone now felt meaningless given the continuous lack of opportunity and recognition for actresses of color that has followed: “That moment really meant nothing… It meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing,” said Berry, adding that she was “profoundly hurt” by this lack of progress; that her win failed to open doors for others.
It would take another 8 years before a black actress would be nominated in the Best Actress category – Gabourey Sidibe for her performance in Precious. She didn’t win however, and Berry still remains the only black actress to win the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Since Sidibe’s 2010 nomination, an abysmal 3 black actresses have been nominated in the Best Actress Oscar category (a number that is reflective of just how infrequent black actresses are cast in lead lady roles, especially in studio films, let alone carry a movie): Viola Davis (The Help), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Ruth Negga (Loving).
The point being made here is that, it’s impossible to adequately answer the question of what black actress can open a movie, when so few are given the opportunity to actually lead a movie at the studio level.
And while Berry’s Oscar win seemed to open doors for the actress herself, the material she was handed wasn’t always blockbuster worthy.
Her strongest box office showing post-Monster’s Ball was Gothika (2003), which opened wide, on over 2300 screens, with $19.3 million, a distance second behind Mike Myers’ The Cat in the Hat, which opened with double that figure. Gothika would go on to gross $59.7 million domestically, and $141.6 million worldwide. Not bad at all, but not nearly enough to become a member of the exclusive “Top Openers” club.
She followed that up with the dismal Catwoman – the highest budgeted movie that she’s ever carried ($100 million production costs), and an ill-advised and frankly embarrassing take on the DC Comics superhero commonly associated with Batman. It’s very rare for a comic book superhero movie to open at lower than first place – especially in recent years; Berry’s Catwoman opened on July 23, 2004, ranked 3rd, although behind stiff competition in The Bourne Supremacy at number 1 (also its opening weekend), and Will Smith’s I, Robot in its second weekend. Catwoman opened on over 3,100 screens and earned just $16.7 million, en route to a pathetic $40.2 million domestic gross, and just over $82 million worldwide – both well shy of the film’s $100 million budget. Comic book movies 10+ years later are opening with more than what Catwoman grossed globally for its entire run. But the film’s failure wasn’t Halle’s fault entirely. In fact, as critical consensus (via Rotten Tomatoes’ 9% rating of the film) notes, she was the lone bright spot, but ultimately couldn’t save the “laughable” movie on her own.
To be sure, it was a huge deal for a black woman to be cast in the film at the time, as the title character, but that relevance was ultimately overshadowed by its poor reception. In fact, John Rogers, one of the dozen or so writers who worked on the script (over the course of its lengthy development, several actresses were attached to star before Berry signed on), even admitted (many years later of course) that it was “a shit movie dumped by the studio at the end of a style cycle.”
As one of the credited writers of CATWOMAN, I believe I have the authority to say: because it was a shit movie dumped by the studio at the end of a style cycle, and had zero cultural relevance either in front of or behind the camera.
This is a bad take. Feel shame. https://t.co/6sth7w38Xx
— John Rogers (@jonrog1) February 24, 2018
Ms. Berry would also later admit that the movie was a disaster, thanking Warner Bros. for “putting me in a piece of shit, godawful movie” after winning the Worst Actress Razzie award that year. She also thanked the screenwriters, “all of 20 of them, for thinking this was a good idea. It wasn’t, but thank you.”
Watch her hilarious acceptance speech below; she certainly deserves an applause for actually showing up to receive the award.
One can be certain that a Catwoman movie made today would likely be treated with a similar seriousness, wonder, thrill and spectacle that another DC superheroine movie – Wonder Woman (2017) – succeeded so greatly with.
In recent years, Berry has seen her Hollywood fortunes wither, but still alive, with films like The Call (2013) opening in 2nd place with a respectable (relative to its $13 million budget) $17 million, and 2017’s Kidnap (an ill-fated film which suffered several release delays that weren’t its fault), which opened in 5th place, with $10 million.
The Call grossed $51.9 domestically, and Kidnap earned $30.7.
Those numbers certainly aren’t stellar, but, again, relative to their low budgets, Berry arguably still has some box office clout. However, she’s not the A-lister she was once considered to be, when she was ranked among Hollywood’s highest paid with her $15 million payday for Catwoman.
Keep in mind that these box office figures (unadjusted for inflation) are more than comparable to opening numbers for Jennifer Lawrence (non-franchise, or based on existing popular IP) films, with 2015’s Joy being her highest solo opener, earning $17 million over its premiere weekend.
Berry’s other post-Oscar win studio films which she led include Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Perfect Stranger (2007) and DreamWorks’ Things We Lost in the Fire (2007) – neither did much at the box office.
Second to Berry in terms of black actresses who’ve been given opportunities to carry films, is Queen Latifah, who can claim at least 2 instances: Paramount’s Last Holiday (2006), which opened with $12.8 million on 2500 screens, and grossed 38.4 million domestically; and Fox Searchlight’s Just Wright (2010), which opened on 1800 screens with $8.2 million, and grossed $21.5 million domestically.
Of course Latifah also co-starred in 2017’s box office smash Girls Trip, but we can’t attribute the film’s success to her presence in it, given that it features an ensemble cast of mostly familiar faces, with Tiffany Haddish in a breakout performance (she has numerous projects set over the next few years as well, one of which could be a strong leading performance).
And finally, there’s Taraji P. Henson, who lead Sony/Screen Gems’ $13 million (budget) No Good Deed (2014) to a $52.5 million domestic gross, after a healthy $24.2 million opening on 2,175 screens. Idris Elba co-starring in the film certainly contributed to its box office appeal.
And after helping Fox’s hit TV series Empire shatter ratings records for the network and launch a cultural phenomenon, as well as co-lead Fox’s 2016 historical drama Hidden Figures to box office glory ($169 million domestic), Henson would be given the opportunity to open a studio picture, playing a hitwoman (rare for black actresses) in 2018’s Proud Mary, a Sony/Screen Gems project, which suffered a box office letdown, grossing just $20.9 million, after a disappointing $9.9 million opening on over 2,000 screens. Reasons for the $14 million film’s box office demise have been debated, including what appeared to be a lack of enthusiasm from the studio with regards to how the film was marketed, and also the fact that it was effectively kept from critics and the general press, leading into its premiere – typically a signal to movie-goers that a title isn’t worth the bother. The film’s eventual 29% Rotten Tomatoes rating didn’t help matters, with the consensus praising Henson’s demonstration that she can indeed carry an action movie, but indifferent to the film overall. Essentially, right kind of vehicle for her, but wrong movie.
Henson will be given opportunities to rebound, with leads in Lionsgate’s Tyler Perry drama-thriller Acrimony, as well as a remake of the Mel Gibson 2000 romantic comedy What Women Want (which will be titled What Men Want), and The Best of Enemies, which is based on the incredible true story of Ann Atwater, the ferocious civil rights activist in Durham, North Carolina, who fought a decade-long battle with C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops of Durham’s Ku Klux Klan; a film that has Best Actress Academy Award potential written all over it, by the way.
Box office openings and overall grosses for these upcoming Henson titles will certainly be closely watched by writers like myself.
It’s worth noting here that Henson was also an executive producer on Proud Mary, No Good Deed and will do the same on the upcoming What Men Want. Halle Berry and Queen Latifah have also worn producer/executive hats on some of their starring projects, a move that’s common among A-listers.
So, once again, the answer to the question of whether there’s a black actress who can open a movie, is that we just don’t know with any certainty yet, given available data, because black actresses simply haven’t been afforded the same kind of opportunities to lead films – to try and fail (sometimes repeatedly) – compared to white actors and actresses, and even black actors. There is no consistency in that regard. But maybe that’s starting to change.
Consideration should also be given to the fact that the industry continues to undergo major disruption, which only further complicates decision-maker spreadsheets. Studios are producing fewer films in a risk-off environment, as movie stars are drawn to the more diverse (in every sense) and interesting work that is being created for television. And so an actor/actress’ star power is no longer determined almost entirely by box office.
The overall complexion of the world and balance of power – specifically in the USA – is shifting faster than some would like in the era of Trump, and it’s an ongoing phenomenon that should not be ignored, especially if creating content for a mass, mainstream audience. We all want to see ourselves on screen – at least I certainly think so. Quite a bold concept, isn’t it?
The last 12 to 24 months in TV history have certainly seen a more concerted effort by the networks to produce content built around black actresses. And I’d like to think it’s only a matter of time before the film studio arms of the parent companies who also own the TV networks, come to the realization that, as the old western saying goes, “There’s gold in them thar hills… there’s millions in it,” especially if ticket sales are of importance to them; which they are.
Consider that Girls Trip was one of the top 30 grossing films of 2017 (out of around 728 theatrical releases), made for a measly $19 million (far below the average Hollywood film budget), grossing over $115 million domestically. It was also the 3rd highest grossing film of 2017 that tells a story centered squarely around the lives of female characters, with Wonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast the 2 films ahead of it.
Back to the Viola Davis quote: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
Let’s hope that studios heads, producers, directors, and other decision-makers give black actresses the opportunity to compete for the best roles; to prove their box office worth.