Thanks to the critical and commercial success of Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 12 Years a Slave, 2013 is already being hailed as a banner year for black cinema. It is looking extremely likely that between the two films, African-American directors, writers and performers could dominate the next Academy Awards. But another “black” film was just released that is unlikely to receive an Oscar nod, yet may one day be viewed as one of the most pivotal films in the history of black cinema.
Released last Friday, The Best Man Holiday shattered box office expectations, nearly recouping its entire $17 million budget after only a day and half, and almost doubling that amount in gross by the close of the weekend. Even more significantly, it actually beat Hollywood blockbuster Thor on Friday night. The word “stuns” was used to describe what The Best Man Holiday accomplished. So what does all of this mean—beyond the obvious, which is there may very well be a Best Man 3 now in the works?
For starters, it means that finally, officially so-called black films will no longer be seen as niche films that are long-shot gambles. A film that knocks off Thor is not a niche film. It is a mainstream film, and Hollywood should start treating our stories accordingly. After all, America is becoming a brown country. So in the same way that flesh-tone pantyhose or Band-Aids are no longer white in color, neither are mainstream films.
The other reason The Best Man Holiday’s success is hugely significant is that it may have just singlehandedly resuscitated an entire film genre. One year ago New York magazine published an article titled, “Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?” The general consensus seemed to be probably not. Audiences had simply tired of films where the plot revolves around boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and they get married and then they eventually have problems again so we can all get a sequel. Think Like a Man, however, which also found box office success, proved there is an audience for romantic comedies, but interestingly, the New York magazine article essentially dismissed the success of Think Like a Man as a fluke, proclaiming, “that film never truly broke out beyond its predominantly African-American target audience.”
This statement is unlikely to be accurate. Think Like a Man grossed just under $100 million. African Americans comprise just shy of 14 percent of the population, so there were filmgoers outside of the black community who contributed to this film’s success.
But The Best Man Holiday is on track to easily surpass the $100 million mark. It’s a third of the way there, and it’s only been out one weekend, meaning romantic comedies are officially back. This will completely upend the power structure in Hollywood. When romantic comedies are thriving, female actresses tend to have more power, since they tend to headline them. Think Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon in their heyday. But African-American actors also thrived when romantic comedies dominated Hollywood. Think of the decade that included Boomerang in 1992 and Brown Sugar in 2002.
The Best Man Holiday is significant because it proves that a film with black characters as the leads does not have to be a black film. The Butler and 12 Years a Slave were well-done films that deserve every award they might receive, but race and racial strife are driving forces of the plots of both. Not so with The Best Man Holiday. That doesn’t mean we should pretend that race and racism don’t exist. But it does mean that there are stories we can tell in which race is not an integral co-star. And those stories can still be substantive, rich and full of universal truths.
There has long been a saying that in Hollywood the only color anyone sees is green. The bottom line is thanks to the green made by The Best Man Holiday, we can all expect to see more brown and black characters on film.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.