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Blast From The Past - "Castor Oil" Movies

by Sergio
June 24, 2011 12:36 PM
14 Comments
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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.

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14 Comments

  • Mecca | August 1, 2011 6:10 AMReply

    ”never ever yield to the needs of people of color.”

    I understand Mr. Belafonte’s point of view but we are in 2011 when are Black people going to realize that Hollywood will not and will never change to suit our needs. I mean you can protest, scream and shout at the top of your lungs but nobody gives a damn about the image of Black people on screen. In Hollywood rich-white-Jewish-executives call the shots on everything.

    It is a dog-eat-dog world out there no industry is “equal” people of color will always experience the injustice of the world wherever you go. It really sucks if you ask me, it is almost as if this world was not built for you but you are trying to assimilate with everybody to make a living.

    ”in pursuit of ego, in pursuit of large, ridiculous sums of money, we have sold our birthright that somehow we are more victim than we are responsible.”

    Belafonte makes very interesting points here in his argument. I have an issue with entertainers always pointing out the dilemma but they never have any solutions to offer to the growing concern at hand.

    I agree w/ DCMovieGirl “...but less talking more doing, please!

    I’m afraid we talk too much and have no initiative to actually get up and get things going ASAP! I realize that it is not an easy process but all this talking is not helping any of us we have the funds we can easily get things done.

    @ Laura

    “As one commenter posted on the thread about NAACP supporting the film The Help w/Viola Davis. NAACP is not interested in “positive” Black images. If they were the would put some resources (financial, manpower and/or institutional) to promulgating and promoting the Black film indie movement.”

    As one commenter said, the NAACP doesn’t owe Blacks anything! We like to play the blame game and a point fingers at what we think is the problem, when we can only blame ourselves for being unresponsive bystanders in our community.

    I type fast ignore any typos you see.

  • Mike | January 24, 2012 6:00 PM

    Jews are not White thank you. They are Middle Eastern. If you haven't noticed, blacks are portrayed in the best light possible in most movies these days.

  • CareyCarey | June 25, 2011 5:38 AMReply

    Ira Harmon said: "Besides film doesn’t have lasting social impact on memes that could catalyze collective thought the way books do. Film is like ice cream, very perishable"

    Ms. Harmon, I have to vehemently disagree. Movies are like all sources of media. Many times, those images are indelibly etched in are memories and they do change mindsets.

    I have an analogy. In 2004, a politician, I believe he was a mayor, decided to go against the law and marry same sex couples. His actions were followed by two others in San Francisco and San Diego (in the same year). Back then, the overall approval of save sex marriages was 70% against and 30% for such marriages. He lost his re-election bid and was taken to court. Today those numbers have flipped, 70% approval, 30% against. 3 days ago he was on The Rachel Maddow Show. She asked him if his actions were the impetuous to the changes we see today. He said absolutely not. He went on to say the new images we see on screen are the driving force being changing the minds of many. The movie “The Bird Cage” is no longer the primary images we see, he said. He went on to name several shows and movies that did/do not depict gays in a negative light.

    So Ms. Harmon, I don’t know the color of your skin, however, it’s unfortunate but true, that an overwhelming majority of people get their major source of knowledge from the boob tube and movies, and they do change minds.

    Yes movies certainly do have lasting social impact on memes that could catalyze collective thought. How could they not? Should we talk about the propaganda of “The Birth Of A Nation” that is still being shown in back woods and filthy by-ways of rednecks and Klu Klux Klan members. Listen, all closed eyes are not sleep and don’t be nobodies fool... cuz we are not.

    And btw, that mayor won his last re-elected bid.

  • Ira Harmon | June 25, 2011 4:01 AMReply

    Seems black people are burdened with the "responsibility" of taking every opportunity to use all public images for "damage control". Blacks can't just be people with foibles and forgivable faults. Blacks have to be ever perfect in impossible to maintain mythological characterizations. Yet these characterizations are boring and have no place in entertainment vehicles. Besides film doesn't have lasting social impact on memes that could catalyze collective thought the way books do. Film is like ice cream, very perishable.

  • CareyCarey | June 25, 2011 1:10 AMReply

    Damn, I must have had my hearing aid turned down, Pointdexter called my name. :-)

    Music writer and one up him? Huuummm, he'll have to give me a call on that? Maybe we've "spoken" before?

    But check this, it looks like I may be in the minority on this one (what's new) but I loved The Great Debators! Yes sir, I've seen it at least 6 times. In fact... let me see how I should say this... ahh... I showed it to a captive audience of black folks from the ages of 18-60, women and men. Chances are, many of them would not have picked this movie on their own, but everyone... EVERYONE enjoyed it. Well, one old dude fell asleep and started snoring so loud that I told him to get up and get out, and go wash his face.

    Okay, I don’t think I am breaking any rules of anonymity by saying this, the room was filed with recovering drug addicts, alcoholics and many were coming straight out of the penitentiary. I don’t know exactly why I choose that movie but I believe it was the subtle and maybe overt messages of change, and struggles and obstacles outside one’s control. Those things we can’t do anything about except jack up our slacks and clean our own side of the street, and then press on. Which leads me back to the messages I heard in Sergio’s great perspective on the intrinsic nature of the black film viewer.

    Well, what can I say that he hasn’t? I could borrow a line from Gil Scott Heron... “The Revolution Will Not be Televised, [nor at your nearest theater]”

    But you know what, following Sergio’s theme of we are hypocrites, I think a more appropriate ending would be something like the words from The Last Poets. You know, something like “Naggers Will Jive And bullshit” and.....

    Night, descends, as the sun's light ends
    And black comes back, to blend again
    And with the depth of the sun
    Night blackness become one
    Blackness being you
    Peeping through the red, the white, and the blue
    Dreaming of bars, black civilizations that once flourished and grew
    HEY! - WAKE UP, NIGGERS or y'all through!
    Drowning in the puddle of the white man's spit
    As you pause for some drawers in the midst of shit
    And ain't got nothing to save your funky-ass with!
    You cool, fool - sipping on a menthol cigarette 'round midnight
    Rapping about how the Big Apple is outta sight, when you ain't never had a bite
    Who are you fooling? Me, you
    Wake up, niggers or ya ALL through!
    In Uptown, two roaches are drowned in each other's piss
    In Downtown, interracial lovers secretly kiss
    While junkies are dreaming of total bliss

    Wake up niggas, and if the shoe does not fit, walk on by.

    Damn, after I took 30 minutes to come up with that cooment, I just thought of a better analogy (Monique hates my analogies :-)) . I should have used the poem "Black Thighs". Yep, some people will talk all high and mighty about their love and need for "quality" and "positive" movies, but when black thighs come around, all bets are off, it's pop goes the weasel, Quality or not. :-)

  • Xi | June 24, 2011 10:56 AMReply

    I disagree.

    Not necessarily with Sergio's comments (because they're true), but with the mentality that supports them.

    This reminds me of sharing in a history classroom with students who constantly text and talk then blame the professor because she/he isn't making the class interesting enough...because some element of multimedia isn't involved. When in actuality, they [we] don't have the attention span to sit still long enough to learn something new.

    ::I really hate to get on my soapbox here, but my feet can't help but move::

    The Great Debaters was a well made movie. I genuinely enjoyed watching the story unfold and more importantly seeing the diligence of those young people. It showed me just how lazy I can be and well if that's preachy, then so be it. We need it sometimes. Cause, real talk, we tend to lose our minds every now and then, and need to reminded who and where we come from.

    I agree with Pointdexter; people usually pass up opportunity because it's dressed in overalls and looks like work. Another commenter mentioned she/he saw the film with her father. I can think of so many people my age (25) and younger who wouldn't be able to sit down and appreciate that film if their grand or great grand parents asked them to.



    Honestly, I think we need both. It's fine to have all the pomp and circumstance but every now and then we need to sit down and hear the dissertation. Let's not forget how important castor oil is for your health.

    ::exits soap box side eyeing everyone who said they haven't seen The Great Debaters and don't care to see it::

  • Kia | June 24, 2011 9:58 AMReply

    As one who hadn't read this article before, I certainly felt "schooled" and appreciative of Sergio's honest perspective. I'm a sucker for any uplifting movie if it's what I'm in the mood for, but never urge it to be the epitome of what is my newfound term "realistic". I do see this trend to support what is being labelled as "castor oil" films (good and bad), but more so for the sake of a box office receipts and I must say it working. I've gone out--twice so far this year and done my duty of "uplifting" the opening weekend box office stats for two movies that I wouldn't have seen otherwise, but my mom enjoyed them. Those of us with film projects in the works will probably jump on this train soon enough.

    So here's to the future thought provoking films which can be entertaining (misery or non misery :) Just plain old good and exciting enough to bring auds willingly.

    As for Beloved... it's unfortunate b/c the book was enlightening. Loved Thandie, Kimberly and Lisa Gay Hamilton's performances though. The confusion of that movie got in the way of those performances.

  • Tamara | June 24, 2011 8:06 AMReply

    Nobody sees a film because they have to. They see a film because they want to.


    True. And I've got a long list of dont-want-to-see films that are like these castor-oil features you highlight. I did however view Beloved... Maybe if Oprah hadn't of starred as "Sethe" (and over-amped it to her audience, viewers, bookclub minions, etc.) then maybe it would've been 'less' preachy. I certainly didn't think the novel was preachy, but the film came across that way, a bit. The novel, the story is so layered, complex, depth-filled... Lost in translation, that one was. The Great Debaters I remember when they filmed it (not far from me). I was excited and to be honest had never heard about this group of young students... I wasn't too keen on seeing it. And still haven't.

    Castor-oil. I like that way of describing some of our films.

    I'm wary of some of these features (most really), but I'm glad they exist, as well as the fluff features, but agree with the rest of you in that more films are needed (hopefully are coming and will be as accepted) that lie between the two extremes.

  • JMac | June 24, 2011 7:45 AMReply

    There's plenty of realistic black stories from our history that wouldn't be boring castor oil movies or misery movies and are exciting enough to make everyone (even white people) want to watch. Screenwriters and filmmakers just need to dig deeper instead of making the same Great Debaters, Coach Carter, or whatever inspirational competitive sports flick somebody wants to spit out. A lot of them can be found in major, one of a kind court cases *hint hint.*

  • Pointdexter | June 24, 2011 5:31 AMReply

    Great post Sergio. Like the others, agree with about 99.9 percent of what you wrote... I may have mentioned in previous comments that I am a music writer (here's the part where Carey Carey steps in to one up me) and I have written often about the exact same points from an urben music perspective, ex: the prevalence of negative, demeaning rap over politically conscious rap. That one percent of disagreement, however, is that I believe movies like the Great Debaters and similar films urge responsibility and action, and people don't want to deal with that. Much easier to escape with Transformers than to try to wake up a nation, eh?

  • bashe | June 24, 2011 5:10 AMReply

    I agree with virtually every SYLLABLE of this post, Sergio---but I must say, the one good thing about "castor oil" movies is that they're excellent movies that adult children can take their elderly parents to see! I did, indeed, take my 80-year-old father to see "The Great Debaters," particularly since he was a young person right around the era in which the film was set. It triggered a lot of memories and recollections. (Truthfully, thought, there's no way I would've seen it for any other reason...)

    I do wonder, however, where one might place, say, "Akeelah and the Bee"? (Another example of a perfect take-your-older-parents film.) "Castor oil" film? Or closer to "The Karate Kid"? I could see arguments being made both ways.

  • Jug | June 24, 2011 5:08 AMReply

    100% agree. Black folks are so starved for movie depictions we will take anything, which are often extremes-ultra negative or ultra positive, with no complexity or intrigue to them whatsoever.

    Incidentally, you can trickle that idea down to black actors too. The ones who are more charismatic & tend to have longer careers (i.e. do mainstream stuff), tend to court complexity first because it's more interesting, more FUN..well they also are looking for what they can get, but you see what I'm sayin' LOL.

    Great post Sergio.

  • tambay | June 24, 2011 3:49 AMReply

    @ Lynn - You should thank Sergio, not I :)

  • Lynn | June 24, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    Thank you Tambay for refreshing our brains with this post. I mentioned "castor oil" films in yesterday's post and I am glad you are taking the time to take us back to this discussion.

    I really enjoy this post especially the part when you said, " 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 think as people we create our own barriers and prevent ourselves from being "free" mentally we have a long way to go we are still restricting ourselves and things will never change unless we change as people.

    Thanks S&A again for educating many of us and bringing these issues to light.

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