Why aren't African-American movie stars as popular abroad?

135256__happy_lDreamgirls has enjoyed a remarkable run, winning two Oscars, seeing Jennifer Hudson emerge as the toast of Tinseltown, and crossing the $100 million barrier at the domestic box office. But the musical’s greater financial situation tells a more troubling story — namely, the difficulty studios have in selling movies starring African-Americans internationally.

As The New York Times reported in a long feature yesterday, Dreamgirls has earned more than $101 million in the U.S. and Canada, but Paramount expects it will make little more than $60 million abroad. Which is particularly problematic in an era when Hollywood increasingly depends on foreign box office to drive profits. These days, 52 percent of movie earnings come from international markets. As BET Networks entertainment president and House Party director Reginald Hudlin says in the Times‘ story, "I always call international the new South. In the old days, they told you black films don’t travel down South. Now they say it’s not going to travel overseas." At home, frequent box office champ Will Smith seems like the biggest star on the planet, but the Times quotes industry watcher James Ulmer as saying that Smith ranks no better than No. 12 in terms of worldwide bankability.

Who’s to blame? "The international marketplace is still fairly racist," Ulmer tells the Times. That’s unfortunately plausible, yet there may be some things Hollywood could do to improve the situation:

addCredit(“Pursuit of Happyness: Zade Rosenthal”)

• The most common type of movie that Hollywood makes with African-Americans? Comedies. Yet among the top domestic grossers of 2006, every comedy (Talladega Nights, Click, Borat, The Break-Up) fared better at home than abroad; American humor apparently doesn’t travel well.Unfortunately, studios fear that black people don’t go to the movies,so they don’t make many different kinds of movies for black people(much like they don’t make many movies for women). But as the successof Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness (pictured) or Tyler Perry’s films (or, in the case of female-driven movies, The Devil Wears Prada)shows, those fears are misguided, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the studiosmade more high-quality dramas with African-Americans, rather than broadgenre films, maybe international audiences would be interested. The industry certainly won’t know if it doesn’t try.

• How come, as Hudlin points out toward the end of the Times‘story, black pop stars going back to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley are sosuccessful internationally, but not movie stars? Why are Michael Jordanand Muhammad Ali considered among the most famous people on Earth, but Smith is merely the No. 12 actor? As those examples show, when amighty marketing machine (which, last we checked, Hollywood’s got) putsits mind to it, African-Americans can be embraced globally.

There are so many other avenues we can go down here. But it’s yourturn, PopWatchers: How can Hollywood fix this racial disconnect?


Comments (106 total) Add your comment
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  • Delon

    I completely disagree with the statement that says ”The international marketplace is still fairly racist”. The reason why movies with African-American actors don’t make big boxoffice abroad is because the stories Hollywood choose to tell about African-Americans are even more cliched than the ones about white people. They are also much more intrinsic to the American culture because they are mostly comedies where African-Americans play stereotypes. If Hollywood told more compelling stories that feature African-American actors with a broader appeal the results would be different. I was in Europe last year for close to a year and looking from there everyone except Denzel and Morgan Freeman come off as court jesters. Forrest Whitaker, Denzel and Freeman are very much liked and respected abroad. Not so much the others and that’s because of the stereotypes they are forced to play.

  • juan

    Well said Delon.

  • Sally

    It takes time for the rest of the world to catchup with America…look at race relations in Europe and religious tolerance…we’ve been at these things for 50 years, and Europe/Asia (which is very homogenous), are just now accepting people of other cultures and religions, even though Europe likes to think it’s progressive.

    • James Smith

      Six years later and this statement knocked me off my feet. “The rest of the world catch up to America?” Good grief what are they teaching in schools these days. The first black fighter pilots didn’t fly in the US, they flew for France, because the US had a segregation policy. Slavery was abolished in England long before the US. A black person could own businesses and gain respect due to his character in Victorian England while such priviledges were only a dream in America. Why did nearly all the blacks in the Harlem renaissance write glowingly of their treatment abroad, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, etc. No, America needs to catch up to the civilized world!

  • Heleno

    I think that’s a little unfair. To non-US audiences, quite a few of the African-American (or “urban” as they are odiously described) films come across as being themselves horrendously racist and offensive. I’m thinking here of the likes of Soul Plane, Norbit etc. The Tyler Perry films, meanwhile, haven’t been released here in the UK, I believe because they’re designed to appeal to a specific audience that pretty much doesn’t exist here – not people of African origin, but African-American baptists specifically.
    And to base an accusation of racism on the fact that Will Smith is slightly less popular outside his own country does seem a little misguided – after all, how many Americans are familiar with Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest Bollywood star and a name familiar to half the planet? Does that make you guys racist? If Dreamgirls or Pursuit of Happyness haven’t done AS well here, maybe that’s because they tell very American stories, rather than because they star African-American actors

  • Karen

    I completely agree with Delon’s comments. It seems to me that in the US stories like these are used to compensate for any racism that may be present in US society. Just look at Sally’s comments. No wonder people think Americans are ignorant. Europe has dealt with the presence of non-European cultures for centuries.

  • aron

    To say that the rest of the world is racist, is just plain stupid and ignorant. It wasn’t so long ago that America was accused of it. now just because African-American actors are winning oscars and rappers are winning grammy’s does not make Americans less racist. One should not assume that just because African-American people are more or less at the forefront of music and movies in the States, that it should automatically translate to the same success in the rest of the world. That arrogance is what people outside the US do not like, rightfully so.
    Asking why Will Smith is “only” 12th on a most popular list outside the US, is like asking why Romain Duris is only 133rd in an American list. Also, have you thought about the fact that those movies mentioned are just not that good, even if they did make over $100 million dollars in the States? Or that they don’t translate well? Or that foreign audiences have become more sophisticated in their choices of movies to watch?

  • aron

    Sally is just plain stupid, stupid, stupid. Go read a book.

  • Sven

    Will Smith has said several times that the reason African American films don’t do well overseas is his colleagues don’t bother doing international publicity tours. He is one of the only Black actors to make the effort, which is why his film are among the few that usually succeed outside the United States. So is there any racism involved? Perhaps, but as the lottery folks say, “you can’t win if you don’t play”.

  • anne

    I agree with Karen and Delon. Just because Hollywood (the greatest publicity machine in the world) makes feel-good movies like Dreamgirls and the Pursuit of Happiness, and pats itself on the back to say that “we’ve come a long way, and look how not racist we are”, when hurricane Katrina proved otherwise is a contradiction in terms. It’s actually called denial.

  • Giuseppe

    How many Americans watch non American films ?!!!!

  • Steve P

    Dreamgirls and Happyness aside, movies made in that area recently include Norbit, Little Man and that Tyle Perry nonsense. Maybe the international market just don’t care for such artistic output? A black British star came to the US and made a movie which bombed, and we didn’t accuse the US of racism, so calm yourself down, Ulmer.

  • Marc

    Why should the rest of the world watch American crappy movies when Americans do not watch other countries’ movies? You pat my back, and I’ll pat yours.

  • Jason

    I’m heartened by some of the comments here. The tone of this piece is exactly the problem with North American society – the assumption that everything American is superior and therefore it is necessary to force our junk on the rest of the world and then expect them to bow down to our greatness. Living in Canada, we have difficulty creating a sustainable film industry because American movies are forced on us. The only market that is successful is in Quebec where the French speaking population shows up for French movies. We have great filmakers who are constantly overshadowed by the imperialist Hollywood machine. It’s sad.

  • Giuseppe

    THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS has made over $20 million in Italy. This is more than Germany and France combined.
    How many Italian, German, French, Greek and South korean films have been shown in the U.S and made money.
    Europeans and the rest of the world are more open to other peoples culture, Americans are not!

  • jeet

    Wasn’t “The Pursuit of Happyness” helmed by the popular Italian director Gabriele Muccino? (Which might explain why it did better in Italy than in France and Germany combined.)
    And wouldn’t it be a more fair comparison to ask how many Italian, German, French, Greek and South korean have been shown outside their country of origin (as opposed to just the US) and made money?

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