CREED hit $97,886,653 as of Tuesday. That means that beyond any doubt, it will cross 100,000,000 dollars this weekend. And that means…what, precisely?
I’m not sure. Have to think about it. Right now, I’m just exhaling, happy that a goal I’ve been watching for at least 25 years is about to be reached.
The specific goal is “a black male lead has a love scene in a movie earning over 100 million domestic.” The reason why it is important, my theory goes, is that this threshold, the rough measure of “success” or “wide acceptance” in Hollywood, could not be crossed because of unconscious (or conscious) racism or tribalism on the part of white audiences, specifically white male audiences. That, then, I could use the inability of such films to cross that line as a measurement of the “invisible hand” of racism in America, which also manifests in arrests, convictions, sentencing, employment, lodging, and any number of other arenas.
This all began on Wednesday July 4th, 1990. I was on my way to Portland Westercon, and had a flight out of LAX at about 7 pm. I had nothing to do, and stopped in Westwood to catch a 2pm screening of “Die Hard 2”. Before the movie, there were coming attractions, and one of them was for “Mo Better Blues.” And during that coming attraction, there was a scene of Denzel Washington making love to his girlfriend. I was the only black person in the theater. Because I was in an evil but curious mood, instead of watching the screen, I turned around and watched the audience, and saw something fascinating: all the women in the audience leaned TOWARD the screen. All the guys in the audience pushed back AWAY from the screen.
I laughed my ass off. This was in alignment with what I expected, based on a lifetime of observation:
- Racism is not rare among human beings. Rather, it is as common as dandruff, something that needs to be rooted out, not something that is rare and triggered only by extreme circumstances or personalities.
- Try these definition, which will help you understand my thinking on these things. “Tribalism” is cheering your team. “Racism” is believing the other team is actually inferior. “Bigotry” is being willing to knee-cap the captain of the opposing team. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone at all who didn’t exhibit some Tribalism. I’d guess 80% of people have some detectable Racism. And somewhere between 10-20% of people are detectably Bigoted. Probably the same percentage most of us consider to be “assholes.” They show their hand in reducing human beings to labels and doing the “Those X’s are Y” routine about politics, gender religion, nationality, or whatever. My Spidey Sense starts tingling the instant I hear someone say any of those things. To do it in one arena increases their likelihood to do it in others. About you. When your back is turned.
- Much of it is unconscious. When it is not, people re-define the term (“the differential attribution of average quality or worth based upon race or ethnicity” is the only definition that makes sense to me. It offers comfort to neither side of the political spectrum, excuses no racial group, and mocks the idea that someone isn’t racist because they have “some X friends” or “have no power.” Feh. Both attitudes are twisting language, like someone trying desperately to convince themselves their farts don’t stink.)
- It is stronger between males than across gender lines. Theory: when tribes war, the men are killed, while the females are taken as sexual chattel. My opinion: death is worse, based on the simple fact that if Y is worse than death, you have the option of choosing death. If you didn’t, it wasn’t worse. So the threats, violence, fear and competition are more intense.
- In this male-male war, a primary way it manifests racism manifests is in sexuality. Tribalism always has a “we want access to your females while preventing you from having access to ours” tinge to it. Klansmen would have black girlfriends. Slave masters and overseers routinely visited the slave quarters. Needless to say, traffic going the other way was punished lethally.
- This makes total sense biologically. Heck, the reason we’re agriculturalists not hunter-gatherers is NOT that sedentary farmers are healthier. No, they simply breed more, producing more fighters, enabling them to win wars more often. Hunter-gatherers just can’t compete reproductively. So the fear of being outbred (and therefore outgunned) by “the other” is a very real thing. One of the most basic insults racially/culturally is that “Those X’s breed like rats.” Literally a fear of extinction.
- Add it up. Racism then is tribalism taken a step further, to the point that you don’t fully extend your own humanity to “the other”. You attribute to them different motivations, core values, and so forth. And that “uncanny valley”, fear of something that looks “sort of” like you but isn’t quite, manifests in lots of different preferences–and one of them is that “being outbred” thing, that repulsion thing, that fear of them having access to “your” females thing. And it can be measured in a couple of useful ways: 1) approval of interracial relationships (and there are some fun Gallop polls measuring this in different states, regions, and across political parties. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader if you care to discover how your group holds up). 2) Willingness to relish the sexuality of the “Other” as you do “your own.”
- People point out pornography, which has a thriving market in black-on-white sexual couplings. Doesn’t this indicate an acceptance? Well, porn also has a thriving bestiality market. And a thriving kiddie porn market. I’m no expert, but I’m not willing to wade through that stuff to crunch the data necessary to measure what’s what. A theory: black-on-white porn is the next thing to bestiality, often enjoyed by men who specifically consider it degrading to women.
Can we move forward now? I think so. If I’m right, then you could measure the invisible presence of racism in our culture simply by looking at black lead films and white lead films in the above 100-million club. In a perfect world, I would think that the same percentage of those films would contain love scenes. But when I went looking, what came out is that about 22% of the Above 100 million Club had love scenes. And about 20% of them had black leads. And those two circles never overlapped at all. Not one. In fact, it didn’t overlap for Asians, either. However, Asian and black WOMEN did have love scenes in the Above 100 Million club. But only with white males.
To repeat, the reality seemed to be this: no black or Asian male lead has sex in a movie that earns over 100 million dollars domestic. Not inter-racial, and not same-racial. Nothing. The fun thing is that once I started pointing this out, it violated the world view of certain people. Especially those who believed racism was “a thing of the past.” The denial was hilarious. Some of the reactions would have seemed very familiar to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
- Denial. “You’re wrong” followed by a frantic search for a counter example. There are none. “But what about international box office!” Nope, only domestic. “But in “Independence Day” Will Smith had a girlfriend!” Yeah, but there was no love scene. I’m comparing apples to apples. Period. “But Vin Diesel had love scenes in XXX…” Do you really want to go there? If you say that someone who is perhaps an Octaroon is “black” you are saying that 20% black blood makes you black, but 80% white blood does not make you white. That, frankly, is such a racist formulation that I have real questions about the kind of person who would defend it.
- Anger “You’re wrong about what it means!” You know, perhaps black people just don’t WANT to appear in such scenes, because they’re…umm…so spiritual. Or don’t want to be type-cast as Superstuds…I know black actors and actresses. And yes, they relish playing love scenes equally with their white counterparts. We’ve spoken at nauseating length about it. Or “it’s Hollywood! Yes, those devilish Hollywood racist liberals are the bottleneck!” Umm…no, the movies get made. The AUDIENCES don’t turn out for them. Dem Hollywood Lib’rals ain’t no saints, but I see no reason to believe they are worse about this than human beings in general. And of course “don’t look at me! I don’t care about race! I don’t see race!” and so forth. If one listens to what people say, NO ONE sees race. And yet somehow it is a defining characteristic in American life, and has been for 400 years. IMHO, Occam’s Razor suggests that the simple answer is that, yeah, we see race, even if we’re not consciously aware of it (or willing to speak the truth).
- Bargaining. “Well, have you adjusted for inflation? Surely a movie like “Purple Rain”, which earned 80 million dollars in 1980, would earn TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY million dollars today! Victory (drops the mic).” Umm…I think you need to look at that again. The standard was created in 1990. To be fair, I would have to adjust that number UPWARD to compensate for inflation. 100 million dollars in 1990 money would be about 180 million dollars in current cash. But no, I don’t adjust it upwards because hell, that would be too damned depressing. I like to win. So I leave it at 100 million, knowing that eventually inflation and demographic shifts will push some movie across that line. But speaking of depression…
- Depression. After a desperate search for SOME movie that crosses that line, running out of excuses, and having no alternative answer that explains as elegantly and predictively, about 99% of people have had to admit I was right. “Shit” is the usual response. And then a meek: “but are things getting better..?”
- Acceptance. Yes they are. No, this doesn’t mean America is evil, or white people are evil, or men are evil. Reverse the situation, and blacks would (IMO) be just as racist, and just as self-servingly oblivious and congratulatory. And males are the ones with the territoriality hormones pumped up to “overdrive.” Females are just as “flawed,” although perhaps in slightly different ways. That’s how nature made us, and we’d not be here as a species without it. And over the course of my life MASSIVE change has taken place. It is blindness to say it has not–but also blindness to pretend we’ve grown beyond it as a species or a country. What is the answer?
Heck, I’m just a guy who noticed a measurable phenomenon easily observable to anyone who can Google Boxoffice.com. And devised a theory about it that makes no one inferior, inferior, or different from anyone else. And if I was asked what I think the answer is, I have to move from the arena of logic and statistics and social theory to some beliefs about the basic nature of human beings.
- We are not basically good. Or evil. We just “are.” We are creatures trying to move away from pain, and toward pleasure. Fortunately, game theory suggests that in the long term, honesty and kindness are more productive than dishonesty or cruelty. So that means that just asking the question “how can I find joy? Be happy?” leads us, over time, to those behaviors we call “good.” That said, the apparent basic nature of mature awake human beings (as opposed to sleeping children) is what we call “good”. For purely selfish reasons.
- The beliefs and attitudes we are programmed with prior to puberty are almost impossible to blast out. We can cover them up, but it is a rare human being who really manages to move beyond those basic programmings. And many of them deal with the first couple of levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy: survival and sex. That means jealousy, territoriality, and us/them-ism. I’ve noticed that racism has faded with just a couple of core things: communication and time. This is why, despite the utter horror of some of the social violence we’ve observed, some of the police and judicial injustice I see, I feel no despair. This crap has always happened. Smartphone video has just flipped over that flat rock so that we can actually SEE, without denial, what is going on. And I trust that human beings want to be happy and stop hurting.
Which leads to the second piece: if you genuinely believe black people are inferior, have different motivations and core values, you must be terrified of the changes around you. I empathize with that, and can only try to reassure you that no, we are the same. No better no worse. And those who were born before about 1970 remember clearly the LEGAL strictures, the violent oppression, and they must be terrified that, if we are “the same” blacks will seek vengeance. That the tables will be turned as soon as you lose demographic advantage. I empathize: this is the very last generation where White Males get to dictate the terms of engagement. Another generation and White People as a whole lose that capacity. And then we will deal with some fascinating questions, like “What Is America?” And “what is the true nature of humanity?”
- I can’t tell you what to think. I can tell you how I think I’d feel if I were you. I have been, as a black man, willing to see the humanity in those who denied my own. Attributed that to fear and ignorance. And believed that, in their own ways, they were just trying to find their way to joy and away from fear. I have not changed my sense of that, and as I look at the various measures of positive change (including the public awareness of the horrid rot at the core of some of our institutions) I feel nothing but optimism. It will be a bumpy road, but we’re getting there. And I would look into my own heart. If I come from love, and understanding, and extend that to “the other”, then there is nothing to fear. If I come from fear, there is much to fear. If I do not believe “the other” is as I am, there is much to fear.
- To those stuck in those positions, I can only offer love and understanding, even if you hate or resent me. I am not your enemy. We, as a people, never were. Screw with me of my family and you will reap what you sow, but offer me friendship and honest discourse, and I’ll meet you at least 51% of the way. But do not mistake that for weakness. And I think others are much like me. So if they are, all I need do extend love from a position of strength, see their humanity, grasp that violence stems from fear, and that love is the antidote for that…and all will be well, in time.
- And those born before 1970 might all have to die before we complete this transition. That was the approximate point when black Americans were really acknowledged as equal. Before that, the assumption seemed to be that we were mildly inferior but deserving of being treated decently. The 1935 (I think that was the date) Encyclopedia Britannica openly stated a belief in black intellectual inferiority. It was a total given in culture, the accepted back-drop of much of our cultural mythology. Politely avoided, but never really denied. And if that is the poisonous stew you cooked in, the chances that that didn’t seep into your marrow, coloring and distorting your perceptions, is pretty low. It isn’t your fault. But if I’m right, then the NATURAL tendency is to be slightly racist, slightly tribalistic, and only those who can admit it and “lean into the wind” a bit, have any chance at all of not acting out on those values in a thousand unconscious ways, every damned day.
Which leads me back to the beginning. Those guys leaning away from the “Mo Better Blues” love scene (and yes, I’ve watched the same phenomena with other racial pairings and groups, and I’ve seen it repeatedly, and no, guys don’t do that if they are the same race as the guy on the screen) in 1990 would not be as repelled today. As “Creed” crosses that marker (and a later essay will examine my thoughts about why this film did the deed) I think there is a feedback loop: growing acceptance leads to successful films, which lead to a diversity of image, and those images influence the younger generation, which in terms learns to accept and extend their own humanity…
It all depends on what you think humanity is. What you think the nature of racial differences is. How you interpret the history of the world, and of America. The degree to which you extend your own humanity, and are able to say: “My group would behave the same way, given the same history.”
Whether fear or love have won the war in in your heart.
“Creed” is a milestone. Not the end of a struggle, but perhaps the end of a very easily measurable “gap” is attribution of full humanity. We’ve still got other measures: differential inherited wealth, life expectancy, infant mortality, arrest and incarceration statistics and more. I really like “Percentage representation in the Senate” as a measure. But those are fights for generations beyond my own.
I cared about this one because it was a way to look into media, my area of greatest occupational interest, and ask what it means, and what I might be able to do to move the line a little, by writing books, television, film. By commentary and discussion, and trying to point out simple truths.
Maybe next I’ll explain why I think the term “Social Justice Warrior” would, denotatively, be one of the noblest and highest callings a human being could have, and that rudeness or dishonesty in its cause is as objectionable as is twisting language to try to demonize the term. But that’s for another time.
Right now, I’m closing out 2015 declaring victory in a battle I’ve waged my entire life, and only been able to measure in an effective manner for 26 years. It is ineffably sweet, and things will never be QUITE the same again.
With gratitude to all who have listened to my thoughts on this all these years, and also to the audiences who embraced the film, and the filmmakers who created this minor miracle: Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, and especially Sylvester Stallone, who had the vision and heart to lend his forty years of cred to these young men, and let them take the baton forward, I trust you’ll understand what I mean if I echo one of the most classic lines in the history of cinema:
YO ADRIAN! WE DID IT!
HAPPY NEW YEARS…