TO PREEMPT CERTAIN UNNECESSARY QUESTIONS, COMMENTS OR DEBATES (I'VE BEEN DOING THIS A LITTLE WHILE SO I KNOW HOW IT GOES) PLEASE READ THIS FIRST!
How do I define "black film"? As I’ve always done, I’m considering films whose central narratives revolve primarily around the lives of people of African descent. The writer and/or director does not have to be of African descent. I’m most interested in the story that’s told, and what we see on the screen, not behind it. Some day that might change, but if only for the sake of simplicity, this is the criteria on which the below list is based.
Some of them are debatable; for example, is Will Smith’s character’s story at the center of "Suicide Squad"? I say no, since he's is just one story out of handful of characters in an ensemble cast, even though his character likely gets more screen time that most of the others if only because he's Will Smith. So I didn't include "Suicide Squad" on the list. For the same reasons, I didn't include films like "The Magnificent Seven" remake starring Denzel Washington; also "Independence Day: Resurgence," "Free State of Jones" and more - all films that we covered on this blog because they feature black actors in key roles, but do not meet my above criteria in coming up with the below list.
And while "Loving" is indeed a story about an interracial couple, the issue of race and how it directly affects the life of both of them, and especially that of a woman of African descent, is central and thus dictates that I include it on this list.
I'll acknowledge that there isn't a consensus on what a "black film" is or isn’t. I wish I didn’t have to make these distinctions; alas, this is the state of things. A quote from an unknown source that I like to use as a blanket over this conflict is that, for the sake of simplicity, a black film is one that tells a story about a black person (or black people), regardless of who tells it. It is primarily through his/her/their eyes and experiences that the story unfolds. Although feel free to argue against my criteria. If we can collectively come up with a consensus definition of what "black film" is, I’m certainly in favor of that.
I should also mention that recent releases "Fences" and "Hidden Figures" are not on the list because they likely will earn most of their final box office grosses in 2017, especially "Hidden Figures" which doesn't actually open wide until the first week of January 2017. "Fences" is now in wide release (as of Christmas Day) but with less than a week before the new year begins, I expect it'll continue to do well over the next 30 days. So both "Fences" and "Hidden Figures" will be on next year's year-end list. Where they differ from "Collateral Beauty" (which also opened recently, although a week earlier, on December 16) is that the Will Smith drama was an instant critical and commercial flop, opening quite weak (for a film starring a superstar actor) and to dismal ratings. In short, even though it's been out for only about 2 weeks, it's very unlikely that the film, which has been mostly forgotten, earns much more than what it has grossed thus far.
OK. With further ado, here's the list of the top 20 grossing "black films" of 2016 (Box Office Mojo is my source). Next to each title are abbreviations of the releasing company's name, and how much each film has earned as of Christmas 2016 weekend. My notes on what we can learn from the list follow afterward.
1 - "Central Intelligence" WB (NL) $127,440,871
2 - "Ride Along 2" Uni. $90,862,685
3 - "Boo! A Madea Halloween" LGF $73,206,343
4 - "Barbershop: The Next Cut" WB (NL) $54,030,051
5 - "Almost Christmas" Uni. $41,782,465
6 - "When the Bough Breaks" SGem $29,747,603
7 - "Kevin Hart: What Now?" Uni. $23,574,605
8* - "Race" (2016) Focus $19,115,191
9 - "Collateral Beauty" WB (NL) $17,376,500
10 - "The Birth of a Nation" FoxS $15,861,566
11 - "Moonlight" (2016) A24 $12,048,413
12 -"Fifty Shades of Black" ORF $11,686,940
13 - "The Perfect Match" LGF $9,669,521
14 - "Meet the Blacks" Free $9,097,072
15 - "Queen of Katwe" BV $8,814,329
16 - "Loving" Focus $7,349,687
17 - "Southside with You" RAtt. $6,304,223
18 - "Miles Ahead" SPC $2,610,896
19 - "The Bounce Back" VPD $321,910
20 - "The Fits" Osci. $166,425
*UPDATE: Thanks to a reader for pointing out one title that I initially missed that should be on this list; it would be #8 on the list which would shift every title below it down by a notch:
8 - "Keanu" WB (NL) $20,591,853
So what can we say about the list?
-- First, Kevin Hart had another good year; an even better year than 2015. Three of this year's top 20 earners per the above list star Kevin Hart - "Central Intelligence" (with Dwayne Johnson, who's also on a roll I should add); "Ride Along 2" (with Ice Cube, who is doing very well himself, also starring in the 4th film on the list, "Barbershop: The Next Cut"); and the stand-up comedy tour film "Kevin Hart: What Now?" We'll see all 3 gentlemen again in 2017 in multiple films whether together or solo; for example, Dwayne Johnson stars in 3 films set for release in 2017.
-- Universal studios (Uni.) was (we could say) the most "black friendly" in 2016 given that they claim 5 of the titles on this list, including those released by Focus Features (Focus), because Universal is its parent company. They are followed by Warner Bros (WB) who released 4 films on the list; Lionsgate (LGF) can also claim 3 since they own about half of Roadside Attractions (RAtt.) who released "Southside with You."
-- Stories with men at the center continue to dominate, as has been the case just about every year since I started publishing these year-end lists. Without looking at hard data, I'd say that stories about black women have enjoyed more success on the small screen (TV) this year than at the theater (see the OWN network's lineup for example; also there's Shondaland night on ABC; and I should note that these are mostly series with black women in key roles behind the camera as well).
-- Speaking of black women with key roles behind the camera... none of the top 20 grossing films are directed by black women filmmakers; while half of them were directed by black men. I highlight this not to cause any sort of rift between the genders, but to instead recognize how much progress there still is to be made, especially at a time when words like "diversity" and "inclusion" are cause célèbre in the industry.
-- We can count just one film on the list whose story is centered around an LGBTQ lead: -"Moonlight." Last year there were 2 in the top 20: "Tangerine" and "Blackbird." And given what we know as of today, I can't say that 2017 will be a better or worse year for LGBTQ films centered around the lives of black characters.
-- This year, only 1 film on the list crossed the symbolic $100 million mark - "Central Intelligence." Last year there were 3 of them.
-- Despite statements he's made in the past on wanting to be rid of the character for good, Tyler Perry is probably stuck with Madea for a little while longer; his return to the big screen after a 2-year break to focus on his OWN network TV series came in the form of another movie on the feisty matriarch, "Boo! A Madea Halloween," which performed quite well, earning more than the average Tyler Perry-branded movie by about $20 million, and becoming the second highest grossing Tyler Perry movie to date ("Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail" is #1 with a $90.5 million domestic gross). And thanks to the success of "Boo!" Lionsgate inked a deal with Perry to produce another 2 pictures; one of them will be Madea-focused. So expect more Madea flicks, especially if they continue to perform well.
-- The comedy genre continues to be a black cinema favorite, especially at the studio level; at least half of the films on the list can be classified as comedies or feature comedy as an important element, like romantic comedies, dramedies, action-comedies. Interestingly, the lower you go on the list (let's say from number 10 to 20), the more likely you are to find more serious, risk-taking fare. When it comes to genre cinema, black cinema still severely lacks and 2017 doesn't appear to do much to affect that long-standing trend. We could say that the "catching up" we still have to do is something that's exciting about black cinema. I look forward to a time when our movie theaters are packed with films of all genres with people of African descent central to each story - thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, action, mystery, horror, etc... One film I'm definitely intrigued by that's due for a 2017 release is Jordan Peele's horror flick "Get Out" which is set for a February release.
-- Of the 20 films, only "Queen of Katwe" tells a story about a character of African descent who isn't American. Last year, there were 2: "Timbuktu" and "Samba."
-- 7 of the 20 films on the list tell stories that are based (firmly or loosely) on real-life people, whether alive or dead: "Race," "The Birth of a Nation," "Queen of Katwe," "Loving," "Southside with You," "Miles Ahead," and "Moonlight."
What do you see that I didn't mention? How do you feel overall about the year in black film, especially compared to previous years - a year when studios (and the Academy) have been on the receiving end of much criticism for a lack of diversity both in front of and behind the camera? What will 2017 (and beyond) bring? We will know the answer to the last question soon enough; I will follow up this post with a look at black cinema in 2017, based on currently available information.
Goodbye to what has felt like a tumultuous, exhausting year, thanks in part to maybe the ugliest, most divisive, hateful, frustrating USA presidential election cycles in my life time. But maybe all the angst we've felt this year (regardless of source) will translate to more provocative art (specifically film and TV) next year and after, both at the studio and indie level.