Like a lot of people who saw the original film over ten years ago, I am ecstatic that a sequel to the 1999 hit The Best Man has come to the big screen just in time for Kwanzaa. While watching the trailer for the first time, I could barely contain my excitement and knew this would be the perfect gift for me to add to my holiday wish list. As one of my all time favourite films, I’ve been fantasizing about catching up with Harper, Jordan and the gang for far too long, although I know when I get around to seeing the movie in the coming weeks, it will have been worth the wait.
I suppose it is because of my initial unbridled enthusiasm for this sequel that I was so upset by news that the film was labelled “race-themed” by Scott Bowles of USA Today. A friend shared a fantastic article on the “Awesome Luvvie” blog, critiquing the default status of white Hollywood, which is so clearly shown in the kind of attention paid to films featuring a prominent black cast. Take for instance, the fact that The Best Man Holiday was compared to other current movies with black leads, such as The Butler and 12 Years a Slave. In terms of storyline and their historical context and era, these three films have absolutely nothing to do with each other. However – according to Bowles – these films are comparable simply based on the colour of the skin of the main characters. Certainly, 12 years and Butler deal with race-related themes, but Holiday cannot be lumped in with these films. It’s a rom-com and Luvvie is right to point out it would have been ludicrous to associate Love Actually and Schindler’s List in the same manner that the aforementioned films have been.
Awesome Luvvie is also critical of the shock implicit in the statements made about how well The Best Man Holiday has performed at the cinema; however this criticism falls short of taking her analysis of the white default theory to another echelon, illustrating the worrying social implications for such an attitude toward culture that goes beyond movie ticket sales.
While African American audiences are clearly expected to enjoy (and they do!) the films that The Best Man Holiday has been competing with, like Thor, with mainly white casts, then why is it so hard to believe that white audiences will have any issues enjoying films with mainly black casts? Luvvie’s argument mainly focuses on the obvious desire and need for black audiences to see themselves represented on screen, in positive, diverse and balanced roles, that do not depend on the clichés or stereotypes of Tyler Perry films. However, the idea that white audiences may not also be interested in films with black leads and thus financially contribute to their successes is not questioned or challenged. While Luvvie herself does not actually introduce the idea, the article she analyses is already based on the assumption that white people on mass do not care for the cultural products of black people, which is rooted in racist meta discourses underpinning white supremacy in the visual imagery surrounding us.
I first became aware of this when I attended university in Wales, several years ago. The students union was notorious for refusing to play any R&B or Hip Hop on account of the fact that our student population did not like “black” music, regardless of the fact that R&B and Hip Hop acts were among the biggest selling during that time regardless of race (and continue to be). I found quickly that re-appropriate “black” genres such as Drum & Bass, Jazz and Funk were welcome in our union, but nothing that still have a largely non-white following. During my fresher year, the entertainments team decided to shake things up after hearing that I and a few others were going to start a MOBO (music of black origin) society, named for the awards, to raised awareness of the many forms of music with “black” cultural roots. In short, we wanted to show our peers that there were many forms of popular music that can be traced back to black cultural innovation, however these genres have artists of all ethnic backgrounds and can appeal to audiences all over the world. The entertainments team agreed to help us launch our society with an official Friday night event, hosted over the “Old Boys Weekend.”
Within the first hour the DJ booth was attacked. We were told to “stop playing black music and put on some Jackson 5”. On other occasions, I’d ask for the most recent Missy Elliot track, only to be told that “people don’t like that kind of music – you know, black music”, and then the same DJ would play Barry White. The two most popular music societies on campus were the Drum & Bass and Rock societies – do I need to draw a chart to show where either genre comes from? Yet, during my second year, the new entertainments team told us we could not use the word “black” on our posters as it would “put people off.” Nonetheless, white washed black artists such as Usher, Beyoncé and Rihanna remained popular at our union, alongside older artists such as the aforementioned Barry White, the Jacksons, Stevie Wonder, Areatha Franklin and Whitney Houston. The politics behind these artists was conveniently forgotten and their music labelled as “cheese” due to its widespread popularity.
What all this demonstrates is a clear fascination with black music and/or culture, that has long and troubled history within the (Western) European context. Notable examples have been Blackface minstrel television and radio shows; the life-sized African “villages” on display at zoos and fairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which also included human beings on display; and the so-called “race” films of the first half of the 20th century featuring all black casts (sound familiar?). This fascination with and exploitation of black culture is also the root of the repetitive re-appropriation of certain genres of music, such as blues, jazz, doo-wop, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, funk, disco, drum and bass, soul and now hip hop. Any person who claims to be a huge fan of the Beatles or Rolling Stones, should really clue themselves up on the Isley Brothers and Muddy Waters to see where the two British groups got their inspiration from.
For instance, when one considers the recent duet of Robin Thick and Miley Cyrus at the 2013 VMAs featuring both twerking, gyrating and the heavy unauthorised sampling of a Marvin Gaye classic during the track Blurred Lines (which ironically is featured in the Best Man Holiday’s trailer), the only thing that is really obvious is not only are Thick and Cyrus both into the genres they represent on stage, but they have made a lot of money doing it due to a broad (and predominantly white) audience who wish to see it. While it isn’t remotely surprising to observe a mid-Western, white, former Disney Princess become notorious for re-instating physiological and behavioral stereotypes usually reserved for black women, or – for that matter – Thicke’s unapologetic and repetitive ripping off of Marvin Gaye’s musical catalogue for numerous songs, as he refuses to be pigeon-holed as a “Blue-eyed soul” artist, the platform the two singers were offered to perform upon was quite shocking. That the musical establishment continues to showcase offensive racist mimicry alongside artistic fraud as though both are innovative is worrying and yet revealing. (Side-bar musing: the first time I heard the verb to twerk it was in the Usher song Twork it Out from his 2001 album 8701, with reference to his lovemaking antics. The song incorporated authorised elements of Gaye’s You Sure Love to Ball (1974) – go figure!). More disturbing still was the manner in which Paula Patton was called upon to defend her husbands actions, in several interviews where she appeared to be Thicke’s protective mouthpiece. Each time she laughed off criticism of his behaviour, it came across more like the black friend who claims to be okay with racist jokes – and so we all should be – than the doting wife who genuinely approved of the racist and sexist connotations put across by her spouse in front of a live audience.
The above examples demonstrate that according to “white” mainstream discourses (coded as default), black culture is only safe for consumption and promotion when exploited by whites themselves as this underscores existing notions of white hegemony in the Western world. The Best Man and its sequel according to this rational shouldn’t be appealing to white audiences as its narrative of black lives doesn’t serve the purpose of underscoring white cultural dominance. In other words, while black culture has previously been and continues to be systematically employed to defend white superiority – be it in culture or politics – any imagery produced and controlled for us, by us, is viewed to be threatening. It becomes racialised and is given a political agenda in a meta media narrative, because the truth is, people of colour’s exclusion from and abuse within mainstream medias already is political, whether it’s the white Hip Hop producers who claim an artist isn’t “ghetto” enough, or the fashion editors who lighten up their black models, while the white ones wear racist earrings.
Had The Best Man Holiday been a film with an all-white ensemble cast, such as He’s Just Not That Into You, however a film with exactly the same film and characters with an all-white cast as Best Man would not have been dubbed “race-themed” – it would just be considered normal. However, the very process of normalising whiteness, is a racialising process (as Luvvie points out), in establishing a concept of belonging through an image US culture. When this image is recreated by non-white and yet fellow US citizens, apparently this itself is seen a racialising the film industry, rather than a broadening of who is able to participate in making movies. Most importantly though, when films with all white casts do well, surprise is not attached to the race of the actors, fundamentally illustrating that when we endorse an image of the West that doesn’t further empower the white meta discourse, it is viewed as dangerous, because it shows that an end is eventually coming to that domination. And the worst thing for white supremacists to deal with, is the fact that a white audience might actually be accepting of this change.