The Year in Black Cinema: What Can We Learn From This List of All the Black Films Released in USA Theaters So Far in 2016?
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The Year in Black Cinema: What Can We Learn From This List of All the Black Films Released in USA Theaters So Far in 2016?

With the summer movie season already upon us, typically signaling a turning point in terms of the kinds of films audiences can expect to see in theaters (and also partly in consideration of all the debate that’s taken place over the last couple of days about the make-up of “black films” released theatrically in the USA), I thought I’d take a look at where “black film” is at this halfway point in 2016, and see if we can learn anything 6 months into the year.




First, the list of “black films” that have been released theatrical in the USA specifically, so far this year (2016). In time, I hope to be able to track this kind of information beyond just the USA. In attempting to do so for other countries, collecting the data proved to be a challenge, and I’d rather be sure that I have the most current and accurate information. This is where I would have to rely on our readers outside the USA for assistance. But in the meantime… it’s the USA.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m broadly defining “black film” as any film whose story is primarily centered around a character (or characters) of African descent. The director does not have to be of African descent. But the story the film tells should be from the experience of a character (or characters) of African descent, and it is through their eyes and their lives that each narrative unfolds.

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The films are ranked in order of box office gross, from highest to lowest (these are domestic figures, so they don’t include any international box office; although I can tell you that about half of these have not been released overseas yet). I should note that there are likely some *smaller* films that received very limited releases that I just don’t know about (I used Box Office Mojo, IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, and the Shadow and Act archives as my sources). So if you’re a distributor of a film that I did not mention here, please let me know and I’ll certainly add it:

1 – “Ride Along 2” – Universal – $90,862,685

2 – “Barbershop: The Next Cut” – WB – $53,338,692

3 – “Keanu” – WB – $20,340,239

4 – “Race” – Focus – $19,115,191

5 – “Fifty Shades of Black” – Open Road Films – $11,686,940

6 – “The Perfect Match” – Lionsagte – $9,669,521

7 – “Meet the Blacks” – Freestyle – $9,077,310

8 – “Miles Ahead” – Sony Picture Classics $2,528,793

9 – “Trapped” – Abramorama – $63,241

10 – “Pele: Birth of a Legend” – IFC – $42,918

11 – “Presenting Princess Shaw” – Magnolia – $6,049

12 – “They Will Have to Kill Us First” – BBC – $7,516

In terms of grosses, I should note that some of these films were released more recently than others. So the figures here don’t reflect lifetime box office. Although films like “50 Shades of Black” and “Ride Along 2” have long ended their theatrical runs, because they were released much earlier this year, in January. So their domestic numbers are final.

So far in 2016, 278 movies have been released theatrically in the USA, so we can say that just over 4% of that total are films we can classify as “black films” given my above criteria. If, according to the US census, that 13.2% of the country’s population identify as African American, and that’s the gauge some industry people (not me) use to decide what’s fair in terms of on-screen representation, then the argument could be made that the above list is currently about 24 films short (at least, at this point in the year).

We can also see that comedies continue to be a favorite when it comes to “black films” – especially at the Hollywood studio level – “Ride Along 2,” “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” “Meet the Blacks,” “Fifty Shades of Black,” “The Perfect Match,” and “Keanu.” While not pure comedies, each of these films have been mostly sold for their comedic value. But if we want to get specific, we would say that “Ride Along 2” is an action-comedy; “Barbershop: The Next Cut” is a comedy-drama; “The Perfect Match” is a romantic-comedy; “Meet the Blacks” and “Fifty Shades of Black” are essentially comedic spoofs of more dramatic films, etc, etc, etc. You get the picture. So half of the 12 films could fit under a broad “Comedy” umbrella.




Obviously “Ride Along 2” was a hit for Universal. Although it didn’t do as well as the first film which grossed $134 million domestically.

WB (Warner Bros.) accounts for 2 of the 12 films – “Barbershop” and “Keanu.” There’s no other company with more than 1 film listed.

Ice Cube starred in 2 of the 12 films on the list, which also happened to be the 2 top earning films (so far this year) on the list. It’s worth noting that he’s also a producer on both films “Ride Along 2” and “Barbershop: The Next Cut.”

Three of the films on the list are based on the lives of real people – “Race” (Jesse Owens), “Miles Ahead” (Miles Davis), and “Pele: Birth of a Legend” (obvious). I would use the word “biopics,” but Don Cheadle has been adamant about not referring to “Miles Ahead” as a biopic (it’s not a traditional bio and more experimental in nature – like Miles Davis was with his music).

Three of the films on the list of 12 are documentaries – “Trapped,” “Presenting Princess Shaw” and “They Will Have to Kill Us First” – and, not surprisingly, they are the earned the least amount of money (they also were released in the fewest number of theaters).

Just 6 of the 12 films were directed by black filmmakers. Numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9 on the list.

Of the 12 films, 2 of them tell non-American African/diaspora stories: “Pele” and “They Will Have to Kills Us First” (which chronicles the fight against Islamic extremists in Mali using music as a weapon in that fight).

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In terms of themes, I can’t readily identify any dominant messages here. A handful focus on the importance of family and friendships; there are also nods to achievement, as in overcoming obstacles and realizing one’s dreams. The documentary “Trapped” centers specifically on government regulation of abortion access in America, focusing primarily on the South. But I can’t say that there is a dominant theme on the list. But feel free to point anything out that you see.

Despite what previously seemed like an emphasis on stories set in the past (Slavery, Civil Rights era, etc), the vast majority of these films are set in the present day. The most obvious film set during what were far more turbulent and restricted times for black people is “Race,” the Jesse Owens film. Others like “Miles Ahead” go back and forth in time. But we’re mostly in the present-day on this list.




In terms of gender representation, stories that center primarily around black woman are certainly in the minority, with “Trapped” and “Princess Shaw.” Not that there aren’t black women characters in the other films, but, ultimately, each of those other film’s central characters (as in, from whose specific POV each story unfolds) are male.

Also, virtually no LGBTQ representation on this list, certainly not in starring/lead roles.

Finally, it’s worth noting the correlation (or lack thereof) between how well a film does at the box office and how well it’s reviewed by critics. On this list, the highest grossing film, “Ride Along 2” is also one of the poorest rated (although not the worst). According to movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a 15% rating (“Fifty Shades of Black” earns the trophy as the worst reviewed “black film” of 2016 thus far, with a 7% rating). And on the opposite end, the lowest-grossing films have been reviewed the best – 2 of the documentaries, “Trapped” and “They Will Have to Kill Us First” both have a 100% rating; and “Princess Shaw” has a 96% rating.

I could go on, but I’ll end it here and hand the mic over to you guys for anything that you can deduct based on this list that I haven’t mentioned. Also, how many of these 12 films have you seen?

Later, I’ll take a look at what we can expect for the rest of this year in terms of black cinema.

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