Over the weekend, I went to the theater with some of my favorite black people to see Best Man Holiday, a film starring a bevy of capable black actors. There were quite a few black folks in the audience, because you know, the film does feature some pretty heavy black themes, like love, family, friendship, marriage, raising children and this other super-duper black thing called Christmas.
Or that's what USA Today's piece, which was initially titled "Holiday’ Nearly Beat ‘Thor’ as Race-Themed Films Soar” would have you to believe. To their shock, a sequel that continues the stories of well-to-do American friends—who happen to be black—dealing with drama, lies and loss somehow outpaced the much-anticipated superhero sequel Thor on Friday night. (Malcolm D. Lee's film did exceptionally well this weekend, raking in $30.5 million in the box office.)
Just as Twitter began to rip USA Today a new one for the original headline, it was changed to “‘Holiday’ Nearly Beats ‘Thor’ as Ethnically Diverse Films Soar.” Again, wrong. The film isn't "ethically diverse." The entire lead cast is black.
So really, what does "race-themed" mean, exactly? According to the logic employed in this piece, it sufficiently describes any film that stars nonwhite people. Hell, those nonwhite people could be plotting a solution to an impending zombie apocolypse, and voila, it's a race-themed movie. They could be baking pies, breeding puppies or indulging in the most banal, nondescript activity, and bam! It's a race-themed movie.
There's really nothing remarkable about The Best Man Holiday's storyline. It's standard rom-com, family drama fare. What is remarkable, however, is that because the characters are black, folks are willing to eschew the other parts of their identities that matter much more to the storyline, even when race doesn't configure at all into the plot. Alyssa Rosenberg writes in Talking Points:
"By extension, the suggestion is that the lives of people of color are inflected first, and perhaps only, by race, rather than by gender, sexual orientation, class, love, ambition, jealousy, rage, or even pure, manic-pixie spontaneity."
And it's not just USA Today that's guilty of this. Linda Holmes of NPR writes superbly about the strange language of expectation we use in describing these films. Why, exactly, is there so much shock and surprise when movies with mostly black casts do well, especially when it is well-documented that black audiences are underserved and underrepresented in film?
USA Today changed their headline one last time, but still tripped into a hashtag hailstorm when tweeters helped to flesh out the meaning of the term "race-themed." Warning: Sarcasm overload.
I'm black, so I'm off to have to race-themed lunch. Yummy.