White People In Movie Theater

To get to the short explanation of this loaded assertion I have to narrowly define what I mean by “Black” movies.  Black movies are those films with a majority Black cast that situate Whites, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles.  No matter what the genre and no matter what the race of the director, these kinds of Black films, we are told, form a niche market within the broader domestic U.S. market and are but a tiny fraction of the Global film marketplace.  Now that I’ve established this narrow definition we can explore a brief series of questions beginning with the assertion that is the title of this piece.

Why White people don’t like Black movies.

A vast majority of White people don’t like Black movies because they lack the empathy necessary to identify with Black characters which in turn affects their ability to “suspend disbelief” and surrender to the narrative of a Black film.  What has been called the Racial Empathy Gap in various sociological studies conducted by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough have revealed that,” The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race.”(1)  This study found that the degree of mental activity when White participants watched non-White men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task. “In other words people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people.” (2)

When we watch a film we are watching images of people doing tasks in the pursuit of a goal to change a circumstance and it stands to reason that if the threshold of empathy in Whites is higher when watching non-Whites perform certain tasks because of the Racial Empathy Gap, then if the Whites are watching a Black film such a high empathy threshold would make the suspension of disbelief difficult and attenuate the pleasure of their viewing experience.

But it is often difficult to transpose such highly controlled academic research into a diverse cultural enterprise such as the cinema, so I offer here my own anecdotal evidence that would seem to confirm how the Racial Empathy Gap negatively impairs the ability of Whites to be entertained by a Black film.

In January of 2011 the Wayne State University Media Arts and Communication department hosted a special event with Academy Award winning Asian-American Editor Richard Chew (Star Wars IV: A New Hope-1977, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest- 1975, Waiting to Exhale- 1995) at the esteemed Detroit Film Theatre.  There was an on stage interview with the acclaimed editor with clips from the various films he had worked on throughout his career. He amused the audience with juicy tidbits of behind the scenes encounters with various movie stars and directors of whom the audience was familiar.

The event also included a full screening of the groundbreaking 1964 film NOTHIN’ BUT A MAN (Michael Roemer) which Chew credited as a major inspiration for getting him involved in the film industry since he was in law school when he saw it and started his career soon after.

This Black film starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln which has a story that can be understood as an important harbinger of the Civil Rights Movement was playing to a packed house that night: ¾ White and ¼ Black.  Yet I noticed and couldn’t help but to keep track of the fact that 10 minutes after the house lights went off and the film started many Whites began discreetly heading towards the exits.  Two by two, White couples and individuals continued to leave the screening as the film was on, until by the film’s end only the Blacks and a handful of Whites remained.  I was stunned because I assumed that the older White couples in attendance, who would have been young adults during the Sixties, surely could empathize with the Civil Rights issues dramatized with the film, but the emptying out of the theatre would seem to confirm that some Whites –no matter how tolerant- are unwilling or unable to overcome their Racial Empathy Gap and watch a dramatic film with a majority Black cast.

Specifically, a film whose story does not show Blacks interacting with Whites in servitude, deference, or emotional dependence.  In other words, when the fictional world within the film is exclusively under Black control and influence, as was the case with NOTHIN’ BUT A MAN, many Whites snuck out during the screening, if they dared go see it at all.

The effects of such a Racial Empathy Gap may not negatively influence all Whites when they are viewing a Black film as was evidenced by those Whites who stayed through the entire screening, but it would seem to have had a strong negative influence upon a large number of Whites who had attended the event.

Now of course the Racial Empathy Gap does not directly correlate to a racist attitude or mentality, but it would seem to suggest that there is a certain comfort level experienced with one’s own race that extends to the attention one gives and the pleasure one receives from watching a narrative film.  As film scholar Anna Everett has mentioned Whites don’t take notice when there are no minorities or Blacks in a film, but Blacks do.  “Even if Whites recognize the exclusion it will have different meanings for them.” (3)  Conversely, Whites do seem to take notice when there are no Whites in a film and, it would seem, respond by leaving the theatre or not going to the see the film at all.

Another anecdotal example concerning Whites dislike of Black films is found in the negative comments thrown at Irish director Bill Sheridan for making GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ (2005): He says,” Everybody keeps saying,’ You know, you made a black movie.’ And I keep saying,’ No, I made a movie . . . I made the same movie if I were making it in Dublin or London or anywhere.’ I didn’t approach it like its special. I’m used to Belfast. It’s the same.”(Slave Cinema, 35) Now we can assume with a reasonable degree of certainty that the “They” being referred to were White critics and industry insiders whose comments seemed to be specifically targeted at Jim Sheridan for making one of “those” movies; Black movies that they don’t really want to experience.

Before addressing the deleterious consequences of the Racial Empathy Gap on Black cinema as a whole it would be prudent to ask a question from the assertion with which we began in the opposite context.