Over the weekend, the fine people at USA Today really stepped in it when they published a piece on the weekend box office. It turns out that The Best Man Holiday beat out Thor: The Dark World. And suddenly, a light bulb flashed over the head of one Scott Bowles, who was assigned to write it up. “Eureka!” this person said to himself, “I know what to say. THIS IS A RACE THING.” I mean look, there’s this, and then there’s the “surprising” success of The Butler over the summer. Also, Bowles seems to have remembered, there was this little movie called 12 Years a Slave that everyone was talking about. Cue a piece headlined “Holiday Nearly Beat Thor as Race-Themed Films Soar.”
Twitter, as you might expect, made a lot of fun of him.
So much, in fact, that if you now read the piece, it has been whitewashed to be less obviously offensive. USA Today decided to back off — without issuing a correction — a curious privilege we have only in the Internet age.
Now look: there are a lot of reasons why USA Today‘s headline was silly, but the primary one is that the only reason these films look “race-based” is that the rest of Hollywood is blindingly white. And because white people are “the norm” in Hollywood’s skewed optics, any other color of skin gets marked by “race themes.” White people, in this calculus, get to be the race-less. Which is absurd, because just to take last year’s front-running example, Lincoln wouldn’t be Lincoln if he had been born black instead of white. That one small accident of birth, and Lincoln wouldn’t have been president, his story not “worth” Spielberg’s operatic exploration and all those accolades for Daniel Day-Lewis. That’s the problem with race: it’s always there, always weighing on somebody’s life whether they like it or not.
It’s that liking it or not bit, too, which makes it so frustrating to label a film like The Best Man Holiday in this way. I suppose you could argue that because The Butler and 12 Years a Slave take on America’s racist past directly, it is not entirely wrong to identify them as having “race themes” (though I would like to see someone do that, like I say, to Lincoln if so, for equality’s sake). But The Best Man Holiday, which I have admittedly not seen because I can only take in so many movies a week and I’m stuffed to the gills, looks to me to be at best described as a “romantic comedy.” There’s nothing in the trailer that suggests that the film is about racism, or the “black experience,” in anything but an incidental way. And judging by the swiftness and tenor of the mockery, the people who have seen the movie agree with that.
Of course, the real reason Scott Bowles — and surely many white people — identify The Best Man Holiday as race-themed is because it’s one of these films that is marketed primarily to African Americans. Two remarks present themselves about that. One is that it’s not very clear to me why films are marketed exclusively to African Americans. Ever. I don’t think it’s a giant intellectual leap for anyone these days to observe that the “black experience,” whatever it might be, is a worthy subject for art high and low, the end. And two, even if we accepted that this sort of marketing is going to continue even if it makes no earthly sense, there’s no reason we, the general public, ought to buy that marketing hook, line, and sinker, thinking of it as some kind of fence around this area in the culture. And there’s even less excuse for someone whose job, like Bowles’, is to write about film professionally. This whole robust cultural discourse you see around popular culture? It’s our job to try and see through the marketing, and not to accept it as the limits of possibility. I’m not saying everyone succeeds at that all the time, but lapses like this are more than a bit disgraceful.
I do think, of course, that there is a time and place to talk about “race themes” in the culture. And I also think it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a large public appetite out there for work which isn’t about old white guys, though I generally only think that’s the case because the culture’s been overdosing on old white guys for centuries now. But gawd almighty, USA Today, this wasn’t the place to do it. I can’t read minds, of course, but I suspect that most people who went to see The Best Man Holiday this weekend didn’t go out of a hunger for race-themed work. They went, instead, out of a hunger for humanity.