Since we've heated up S & A with our discussion on whether films about slavery could be made, as well as films about slavery vs films about the Jewish Holocuast, I thought maybe I would revisit a post I wrote back for the old S & A site, last summer about films I call "castor oil"movies. One commenter did mention it, and since we have so many new readers, maybe it's the perfect time to revisit that column.
As you can see, the photo above is from the Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters, which he also directed, and which of course was a big flop. That film has now become the touchstone, the great shining example of a good, intelligent, well made black film, free of stereotypes, that black people didn’t go out and support. As a result it died a painful, sorrowful death at the box office. In other words, we’re hypocrites because we keep screaming for positive images in movies, but when they do show up, we don’t support them.
(And let me state that for the record I hate the word “positive” when referring to black images in the media. Like who are we trying to prove ourselves to? White People? I prefer the term “realistic” , as in, there are black doctors and black criminals, black success stories and black ne'er-do-wells, black entrepreneurs and black-lazy-bums-with-four-baby-mommas-who-won’t-get-their-asses-off-the-couch-playing-video-games. That’s realistic, but I digress.)
I wasn’t exactly bowled over by Debaters. It was O.K. enough, but rather stiff. But the reason why it failed was because it’s a perfect example of what I call a “castor oil” movie. Movies that are "good for you", but hard to take down… just like castor oil (or cod liver oil, if you prefer).
Filmgoers of any race tend to steer clear of those films. People don’t want a lecture or Ph.D dissertation. They want to be entertained. The trick is to give them knowledge, information and something that they can use to inspire them while being entertained. Pixar films or last year's remake of The Karate Kid starring the luckiest kid on the frigging planet, AKA Jaden Smith, are great examples of that type of film. (And yes Tyler Perry films too, but I and most of you, I'm sure, definitely wouldn't call them "great")
However, The Great Debaters, like other perfect “castor oil” movies such as Beloved or Pride, suggested up front that this was going to be an enjoyment-free learning experience. Hell, even the title said it all: THE GREAT DEBATERS. It sounded as if the film was going to be a dry, stiff, boring, very talky history lesson (it wasn't that bad) and therefore people stayed away in droves. Even if they had opened the film in 3,500 theaters and a massive multi-million dollar marketing campaign, people would have still stayed clear of it.
Of course, some of you will point out Precious which was about as hard and unrelentingly grim a film that has ever been made. However, that was was more of a "black misery" film which tend to do much better at the box office than "castor oil" movies. And also the fact that the film was definitely entertaining - albeit in its own very unique, lurid, overwrought, in-your-face way.
One more thing that I should add about “castor oil” films” is that no one wants to see a film out of some sense of duty or obligation. However, with a film like The Great Debaters or Beloved, the underlining message to black filmgoers is always that: "We must support-this-movie-even-though-it’ll-be-as-dry-as-toast-and-even-less-entertaining-because-it-is-a-positive-movie-that-will-uplift-the-race-and-if-it-fails-then-they-won’t-make-any-more-movies-like-this-anymore.” In other words… no fun. Just an obligation like jury duty. Something that you try to get out of even at the slightest opportunity.
Nobody sees a film because they have to. They see a film because they want to.