By Nijla Mumin | Shadow and Act May 6, 2014 at 1:40PM
A packed theater of people watching and enjoying a film is
any filmmaker’s dream. Days before the official release of Amma Asante’s film Belle, I attended an advance screening
of the film in a packed theater with a mostly female, African American audience. They connected to the film in ways that confirmed it’s potential
The film came out strong this past weekend, grossing over $104K playing on only four screens in LA and New York City, for a per screen average of $26,123. These are solid numbers considering it’s limited release by Fox Searchlight, and should bode well for its expansion into theaters across the country in the coming weeks. A smart marketing campaign by the team behind 12 Years A Slave, widespread press coverage devoted to its rich source material, and advance screenings targeting African American audiences, can be attributed to the film’s successful opening. Following the screening last Wednesday, Asante expressed that she wouldn’t sacrifice the cultural nuances related to Belle’s race and gender at the request of higher-ups; she “smuggled” them into the narrative at any cost.
In Belle, Asante takes a familiar genre and infuses it with a distinct directorial perspective that resonates not only with black women, but people raised on classical art and literature who want to see it reinterpreted. It’s a fresh, contemporary script that capitalizes on its interracial cast by evoking racial discord and romance at every turn. At the pre-screening, the audience responded heavily to the powerful performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who wields equal parts vulnerability, class, and passion in the role based on the real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle, biracial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved woman named Maria Belle. Belle was raised by her uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, who ruled on seminal cases involving the abolishment of slavery while raising her. In the film, Belle unpacks her complicated racial identity during this time, falling for a budding lawyer amidst scorn from the white aristocracy.
It is rare that feature films written and directed by black women are received and distributed in this way. The last time we saw a film directed by a black woman, and distributed by a major studio, was Kasi Lemmons' 2013 film Black Nativity released by Fox Searchlight. Based on a Langston Hughes play, the film had trouble reaching an audience during its Thanksgiving opening weekend. Prior to that, Tina Gordon Chism’s Peeples was released by Lionsgate to disappointing box office numbers and critical reception. A confusing marketing campaign depicting enlarged photos of actor’s faces with weird facial expressions contributed to this. (Sergio went into depth about that campaign in a previous post.) Further, many people didn’t know the film was directed by a black woman, as critics continually referred to it as Tyler Perry’s “biggest box office disappointment to date.” What a way to encourage viewers. It is worth pondering- if people had known of Chism's involvement in the film as writer/director, would they have seen it?
But before Peeples, there was Dee Rees’ critically acclaimed 2011 film Pariah, centering on the struggles of a black lesbian teenager played by Adepero Oduye. Released by Focus Features to key theaters across the country, the film was met with glowing reviews, and grossed $48,579 in its opening weekend before expanding. While audience anticipation was high, especially among black/LGBT viewers, the film didn’t open in many theaters where these people could see it.
Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle of Nowhere, which averaged $67,909 in its opening weekend, and was distributed by Participant Media and DuVernay’s film distribution company AFFRM, solved that problem by targeting non-specialized theaters with large black audiences. Without a mainstream distributor, it utilized a strong social media presence in the months before the film’s opening, coupled with AFFRM’s direct- action community building tactics to attract viewers. Following the unconventional successes of Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, DuVernay is set to direct Selma, the highly anticipated MLK biopic starring David Oyelowo, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B team and distributed by Paramount.
There doesn’t seem to be a formula or science to the mainstream attractiveness of films made by black women, and there’s surely no lack of deserving content by black women and women in general. A look at the last decade in black women’s contributions to cinema shows a combination of strategies and models that have helped them navigate widespread, systemic barriers to resources, opportunities, and funding, with Belle being the latest example.
With each box office success, we hope things change for the better, but will they?