The holiday season has not yet officially begun, but one holiday movie is already making a splash — at the box office and in terms of controversy.
Christmas-centric The Best Man Holiday, director Malcolm D. Lee’s follow-up to 1999′s The Best Man, in which the ensemble from the original movie spend a very dramatic December weekend together, had an estimated budget of $17 million and was expected, per an L.A. Times interview with its studio’s head of distribution, to pull in just about that much during its opening weekend. Instead, even though Thor held a hammer lock the top box-office position, Holiday brought in more than $30 million, nearly doubling its low budget in a matter of days. The response to the surprise smash was breathless, and as of Monday night director Lee was confirmed to be in talks to write and direct another follow-up in what looks to become a Best Man franchise.
Response to the breathless response, however, was not so positive. As several commentators pointed out yesterday and today, there is reason to question why Hollywood is so surprised that BMH did so well and to examine the way the movie is discussed. USA Today provided the most remarked-upon example, dubbing the film “race-themed” in a headline that was later removed. As many bloggers pointed out, the movie — which boasts a cast full of some of the most recognizable black actors working today, like Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan — is not actually about race.
The more P.C. term “urban,” used by outlets like Deadline, has also drawn criticism. The idea is that focusing on race when discussing any movie starring black actors implies that white is the default race, and that the movies themselves aren’t interesting for their stories and performances. (Race does come up in Best Man Holiday, particularly in reference to an interracial relationship involving a main ensemble character, but it’s not a main theme of the movie; the interracial relationship plot ends up being about commitment-phobia rather than skin color.)
And, as NPR’s Linda Holmes pointed out in an astute post, there’s no reason why evidence like the high performance of Think Like A Man and BMH‘s A+ CinemaScore shouldn’t have led to high expectations for the movie. The persistence of low expectations, she says, makes every success by a black actor or filmmaker seem like a fluke. It’s a classic example of what George W. Bush called, in a 2000 speech to the NAACP, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
In theory, in a world without such bigotry, The Best Man Holiday would produce box-office guesses and post-mortems judged along the same lines as any other large-cast, family-centric, romantic dramedy.
But The Best Man Holiday actually is different from most Hollywood movies with high expectations. It’s just that the difference isn’t that most of the characters are black. Rather, the role of God and church in the movie is what might give Hollywood prognosticators a reason to be surprised at the movie’s success. Though the film wasn’t race-themed, it was religion-themed; Christmas is, unsurprisingly, important, and the characters actually make decisions based on serious prayer and react to the movie’s events in a way determined by their religion.
It’s not that non-Christian audiences might not understand and enjoy the movie, but the prominence of God in the plot is remarkable — at least speaking personally, as someone who is neither African-American nor Christian, and who is more likely to have seen movies that fit into a privileged concept of the mainstream, rather than movies with so-called niche marketing campaigns. And, even though the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian is higher than the percentage of Americans who identify as black or African-American, movies that take religion seriously don’t always score big bucks.
Case in point: the one-weekend earnings from Best Man Holiday would already place it among the top 10 on Box Office Mojo’s list of highest-grossing Christian movies. Subtract fantasy parables (the Narnia movies) and actual Bible stories (Passion of the Christ), and it sits in the top three. On the other hand, with a few exceptions like Gravity‘s subtler themes, the top-earning movies of the year so far involve almost no portrayals of organized religion.
Sure, it’s a little unfair to compare Passion of the Christ and Best Man Holiday, since the latter is not overtly motivated and marketed by religion — but compare Best Man to 2000′s Keeping the Faith, another God’s-not-the-point-but-still-matters movie. The charming priest/rabbi rom-com, with marquis-name stars Ben Stiller, Edward Norton and Jenna Elfman, cost $29 million and only made about $8 million in its opening weekend, in about the same number of theaters as Best Man Holiday.
This, on the other hand, is what prayer in a stereotypical contemporary-set Hollywood movie looks like when the studio does expect the film to make $30 million its first weekend:
But, luckily for future box-office guessers, there’s another chance to see whether audiences of all races and religions really don’t care about movie characters’ races and religions, and it’s coming up soon: Black Nativity opens Nov. 27.