The year in black cinema: What do the top 20 grossing films of 2017 tell us about where we are?
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The year in black cinema: What do the top 20 grossing films of 2017 tell us about where we are?

First, I’ll acknowledge that there isn’t a consensus on what a “black film” is or isn’t, and what “black cinema” is or is not. But these distinctions still mean something in 2017. 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 that criteria. If we can collectively come up with a consensus definition of what “black film” or “black cinema” is, I’m certainly in favor of that.

But for the sake of this exercise, how do I define “black film”? As we’ve always done, I’m considering only those films whose central narratives revolve primarily around the lives of people of African descent, or films with black actors/actresses in starring/lead roles, and whose own individual story is of fundamental importance to the overall film. 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 the titles on the list are debatable; for example, is Samuel L. Jackson’s character’s story at the center of The Hitman’s Bodyguard? Not entirely; it’s your typical interracial buddy action flick, with Jackson co-starring alongside Ryan Reynolds. But Jackson’s character in the movie is a starring/lead role, and his story is of fundamental importance to the overall narrative, therefore it’s on the list. I would say the same about films like The Dark Tower (Idris Elba co-starring with Matthew McConaughey), Going in Style (Morgan Freeman co-starring with Michael Caine and Alan Arkin), Fist Fight (Ice Cube and Charlie Day), The Mountain Between (Idris Elba, Kate Winslet), A United Kingdom (David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike), and Just Getting Started (Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones).

I should mention that while Netflix released Dee Ree’s critically-acclaimed Mudbound in 17 theaters across the USA, the company has yet to share box office data on the film, which is consistent with its past practices. So the film isn’t on this list for that reason.

Also, another Netflix film, the Will Smith fantasy-adventure movie Bright, hasn’t been released as of the time of this publishing, and so it’s not on this list either. But it won’t affect the list anyway, because Netflix is forgoing a theatrical run for the movie, releasing it only on Netflix, so there wouldn’t be any box office numbers for it to report. Finally Jumanji, which stars Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson, hits theaters nationwide on December 20. And while it’ll likely be a blockbuster (these 2 haven’t made a movie together yet that’s bombed, so we have to assume the ride will continue), it’ll probably be more of a 2018 story, when it’ll make a lot of its money.

In terms of box office grosses and rankings on the list, I should note that some of these films were released more recently than others. So the figures here don’t reflect lifetime box office. While some films have long ended their theatrical runs, because they were released much earlier this year, there are those that are still in theaters, earning money, so their final box office results will differ from what’s on the below list, meaning they would eventually rank higher.

With further ado, here’s the list of the top 20 grossing “black films” of 2017, as of the weekend close of December 17th. Next to each title are abbreviations of the releasing studio’s name, and how much each film has earned. My lengthy notes on what we can learn from the list of films, follow afterward.

1 Get Out Uni. $175,484,140

2 Girls Trip Uni. $115,108,515

3 The Hitman’s Bodyguard LG/S $75,468,583

4 The Dark Tower Sony $50,701,325

5 Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween LGF $47,289,629

6 Going in Style (2017) WB (NL) $45,018,541

7 All Eyez on Me LG/S $44,922,302

8 Everything, Everything WB $34,121,140

9 Fist Fight WB (NL) $32,187,017 3,185

10 Kidnap (2017) Aviron $30,718,107

11 The Mountain Between Us Fox $30,288,825

12 Sleepless ORF $20,783,704

13 Detroit Annapurna $16,790,139

14 Roman J. Israel, Esq. Sony $11,729,747

15 Marshall ORF $9,426,045

16 I am Not Your Negro Magn. $7,123,919

17 Sleight BH Tilt $3,930,990

18 A United Kingdom FoxS $3,902,185

19 Just Getting Started BG $5,464,400

20 Til Death Do Us Part NN $3,455,267

Ok, so here are all my observations based on the above list:

— First, some notable absences of whom I’d call the “usual suspects” (names we typically expect will appear on the big screen in some form or another, annually), including Viola Davis, Will Smith, Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle and Forest Whitaker to name 5. The same can be said for those behind the camera, notably the prolific Antoine Fuqua, Tim Story and Spike Lee, as well as Ava DuVernay, and Ryan Coogler. Although it should be noted that many of them (both the actors and directors) have been occupied with television production this year, and will have films in theaters in 2018 – a number of high profile titles we’re all looking forward to. With some of the “old guard” not seen on theater screens in 2017, a number of fresher faces announced themselves with breakout performances in breakout films this year, like Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, the number 1 & 2 films on the above list. And in terms of upstart directors, Stella Meghie made her studio feature debut, helming Everything, Everything for MGM and WB; Meghie previously directed the indie feature Jean of the Joneses which was released in 2016. Also J.D. Dillard made a bit of a splash with his indie feature debut, the sci-fi/fantasy thriller Sleight, and will make his studio feature debut with the horror movie Sweetheart, starring Kiersey Clemons, which will be out in 2018.

— Where’s Kevin Hart this year? Yes, he co-stars in the upcoming Jumanji with Dwayne Johnson, but given how late in December it opens in theaters, it’ll be more of a 2018 story in terms of overall box office. Last year (2016), Hart had maybe his best year ever. Three of 2016’s top 20 box office earners starred Mr. Hart, who seems to have become one of Hollywood’s hardest working entertainers, making footprints in film, TV and on the web; the 3 2016 titles he starred in: Central Intelligence (with Dwayne Johnson again, who’s also on a roll I should add); Ride Along 2 (with Ice Cube, who is doing very well himself); and the stand-up comedy tour film Kevin Hart: What Now?. But if you’re a big Hart fan, and you missed him on the big screen in 2017, you’ll see the actor/comedian at least twice in theaters in 2018: the comedy Night School (with Tiffany Haddish, who’s having her best year ever in 2017) and The Upside (the remake of the French blockbuster The Intouchables, which made Omar Sy an international star).

Roman J. Israel, Esq. has quietly become one of superstar actor Denzel Washington’s weakest grossing films of his entire career, with just under $12 million thus far, and unlikely to do much better, given that the film has already been out for over 4 weeks, with its widest release at 1669 screens. For some context, of the 46 films he’s starred in, according to Box Office Mojo, Roman Israel ranks at number 39, just above Carbon Copy (1981), Mississippi Masala (1992), Cry Freedom (1987), The Mighty Quinn (1989), Heart Condition (1990), Power (1986) and For Queen and Country (1989). As you can see, these are all films he made much earlier in his career, all prior to 1992. So for Roman Israel to rank among these much older films of his, is noteworthy. The movie received mixed reviews, earning a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is summarized as intriguing yet heavy-handed, and never quite living up to Washington’s magnetic performance in the title role. The film also ranks among his worst reviewed films. It’s just a rare occurrence that a Denzel Washington-led film doesn’t perform at the box office, and win over critics as well. But I’m sure he’ll be just fine.

— At the other end, director Malcolm D. Lee scored his highest grossing film ever in Girls Trip (his 9th feature since 1999), which earned $115,108,515 in domestic box office, $45 million more than the next film on the list, The Best Man Holiday, which earned $70 million. And I Am Not Your Negro became director Raoul Peck’s highest grossing release in the USA by a substantial margin, earning over $7 million. His still woefully underseen great work Lumumba (2001), grossed just $352,00 at the box office. One can only hope that the critical and commercial success of I Am Not Your Negro has helped raise Peck’s industry profile, urging audiences to seek out his past work (documentaries and scripted features), and giving him even more opportunities to make the kinds of films he wants to. I Am Not Your Negro was released for a very limited Oscar-qualifying run on December 9, 2016, but didn’t open wide until February 3, 2017, which explains why it’s on this year’s list.

— 2017 was to be Idris Elba’s break-out year as a Hollywood leading man, starring in 3 feature films, including The Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us; the 3rd, Molly’s Game, will open on Christmas Day, although it’s really Jessica Chastain’s movie. I recall, at the start of 2017, there was some excitement about the kind of year that Elba might have, headlining/co-headlining 3 studio features. Unfortunately, the expected sizzle was more of a fizzle for the popular actor, as the first two films were both critical and commercial duds, while we await the results on the 3rd. Although given that it will be released so late in the year, Molly’s Game will be more of a 2018 story. But don’t weep for Elba. His much-loved, critically-acclaimed BBC detective series Luther, returns in 2018. The actor is also making his feature directorial debut with Yardie, which is set to world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

— Last year (2016), Universal studios (Uni.) was (we could say) the most “black film friendly” Hollywood studio, given that they claimed 5 of the top 20 “black film” grossers of the year. This year (2017) however, the titles are little more evenly divided, with no clear *winner*. LGF (Lionsgate) and WB (Warner Bros.) both claim 3 films on the list; Universal (which dominated last year, 2016, with 5 titles), along with Sony, Fox and ORF (Open Road Films) all released 2 films each (although I should mention that Universal released the top 2 films on the above list); and the rest released 1 title a piece this year.

— In terms of themes, I can’t readily identify any dominant ideas or messages here. A few focus on the importance of family and friendships; there are also nods to achievement, as in overcoming obstacles and realizing one’s dreams. But I can’t say that there is a dominant theme on the list. Feel free to point anything out that you see. I will add that it immediately occurred to me that, unlike previous years, race or racism don’t play much of a role in the stories told in most of the films on the list. It’s rare in Hollywood studio filmmaking when films starring mostly black casts don’t tackle race or racism in some way.

— Despite what previously seemed like an emphasis on stories set in the past (slavery, Civil Rights era, etc), the vast majority of this year’s studio-backed “black films” are set in the present day, which is also noteworthy.

— Stories that center around the lives of male characters continue to dominate, as has been the case just about every year since I started publishing these year-end lists. In 2017, stories about the lives of black women have enjoyed more success on the small screen (TV) than at the theater (for more on this, see my article titled “2017 was almost devoid of black leading ladies on the big screen, but 2018 looks fuller“). In 2017, just 4 of the above top 20 grossing films tell specifically black women’s stories: Girls Trip (Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish), Kidnap (Halle Berry), Everything, Everything (Amandla Stenberg) and Til Death Do Us Part (Annie Ilonzeh). Should Tyler Perry’s latest “Madea” movie be counted among black woman-centered stories on 2017? I’ll let you folks decide.

— As for black women with key roles behind the camera, 2 of the top 20 grossing films were directed by black women filmmakers: A United Kingdom (Amma Asante) and Everything, Everything) (Stella Meghie). By the way, half of the 20 films were directed by black (male or female) filmmakers: numbers 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 20. And the other half were directed by white male filmmakers. Much progress here still to be made when it comes to who gets to tell stories about black people, especially at a time when words like “diversity” and “inclusion” are cause célèbre across the entertainment industry. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there were a number of feature films that saw very limited release, and thus didn’t make the top 20, that were directed by black women filmmakers; films that you may not be immediately aware of like Novitiate (directed by Margaret Betts), Lemon (directed by Janicza Bravo) and Sabaah Folayan’s documentary Whose Streets?. These (and more) are all films you should seek.

— We can count just one LGBTQ-leaning film on the list; I say “leaning” because it’s Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro; although it’s not specifically an LGBTQ issue-centered film. James Baldwin’s words shape the narrative, but it’s ultimately a 90-minute journey inside his mind, as he tackles the history of racism in the United States and the meaning of race in America. And racism is a matter that all black people deal with, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. Last year’s list was just as devoid of LGBTQ-specific stories, with one film in the top 20 – Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which of course won the Oscar for Best Picture.

— 2 of the top 20 films on the list crossed the symbolic $100 million mark – Get Out and Girls Trip. That’s 1 better than last year, which saw just a single film earning over $100 million (Central Intelligence starring Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson).

— Despite public statements he’s made in the last couple of years about wanting to be rid of the character for good, Tyler Perry is probably stuck with Madea for a little while longer. After a 2-year break to focus on his OWN network TV series, Perry’s return to the big screen came in the form of another movie on the feisty matriarch, in 2016’s 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-stamped 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 would eventually become a sequel to the 2016 Boo!, titled Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween. But fans weren’t as interested in another visit to Boo! land because it earned far less than the first film did, grossing just over $47 million, which is almost $30 million less than what the Boo 1! earned ($73.2 million). I’d guess that there likely won’t be a Boo 3!. But I would say that Madea will likely live on in other upcoming movies that haven’t yet been announced. Perry’s Madea-branded films are still his all-time strongest performers at the box office; so from a business POV, he and the studio behind the films (Lionsgate) will probably continue to milk the franchise until his fans have had enough. Have you?

— I’m actually impressed by the genre variety in black cinema in 2017, which is unlike any other recent year. In the past, especially at the studio level, comedies have typically dominated, but this year has something for almost every taste, within the above top 20, as well as those not listed here that are among the other 700 films released theatrical during the year. We had horror films, fantasy and sci-fi, romance, dramas, action, thrillers, period pieces, biopics and of course comedies. When it comes to genre filmmaking, black cinema still severely lacks, and 2017 hopefully represents the beginning of a trend reversal. 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. Maybe the success of films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and even J. D. Dillard’s little-indie-film-that-could, the sci-fi/fantasy thriller Sleight (which quietly grossed almost $4 million), will lead to studios and indie producers taking more chances on films that reflect our varied interests.

— Of the top 20 films, 2 of them tell stories about characters of African descent who are not explicitly American: A United Kingdom (David Oyelowo) and The Mountain Between Us (which *allows* star Idris Elba to be British). Last year, there was just 1 film that fit the criteria: Queen of Katwe. I predict we’ll soon start to see a reversal of this absence of foreign films from Africa and its diaspora, in American theaters, as more filmmakers of African descent all over the world (outside the USA) continue to make strides, demanding to be paid attention to.

— 5 of the 20 films on the list tell stories that are based (firmly or loosely) on the lives of real-life people, whether alive or dead, or on real-life occurrences: All Eyez on Me, Detroit, Marshall, I am Not Your Negro (which is a documentary of course), and A United Kingdom. Last year, there were 7 of them. Biopics of one kind or another continue to be popular when it comes to black cinema.

That’s it for me in terms of observations!

What do you see in the above list that I didn’t mention? How do you feel overall about the year (2017) in black film, especially compared to previous years? It’s been a year that has seen Hollywood studios (and the Academy) increasingly on the receiving end of much criticism for a lack of diversity both in front of and behind the camera. What will 2018 (and beyond) bring? We will know the answer to the last question soon enough, because I plan to follow up this post with a look at black cinema expectations in 2018, based on currently available information.

But for now, a goodbye to what has felt like a tumultuous, exhausting year, thanks in part to maybe the ugliest, most divisive, hateful, frustrating post-USA presidential election cycles in my lifetime. If anything, I’d expect to see more films in 2018 (and after) that are influenced or inspired in some way by the current political climate. And maybe all the angst we’ve felt this year (regardless of the source) will translate into more provocative art (specifically film and TV) in the years to come, both at the studio and indie level.

From all of us to all of you, a very merry Christmas to you and yours!


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