The new David M. Rosenthal thriller, The Perfect Guy, follows the story of a young, accomplished lobbyist named Leah, who has arrived at a crossroads in her love life: David, her longterm boyfriend, begins to doubt their future together. Leah is distraught—that is, until Carter comes along. Carter is, at first, the consummate gentleman: kind, good-looking, affectionate. But as these stories often go, he turns out to be the opposite of Leah’s dreams; he’s a psychopath who begins to obsessively stalk her. The Perfect Guy is a typical Hollywood thriller—except for two things: it features a majority-black cast and, perhaps even more surprisingly, it features a black woman in the lead role.
The film debuted this past weekend in theaters across the country, topping the North American box office. Out-performing horror flick The Visit (the first good movie by M. Night Shyamalan is a very long time) and defying all expectations, it raked in $25.8 million. The success of The Perfect Guy marks the fifth consecutive week in which a film focused on the interiority of black life commanded the US box office. In previous weeks, Straight Outta Compton, a biopic about rap group NWA, and War Room, a family-oriented Christian drama, held the top spots.
By Hollywood standards, all three films surpassed opening-weekend predictions. War Room, which had a production budget of $3 million, has already garnered $39 million domestically. Straight Outta Compton, which many expected to do well, has faired even better than out-of-touch studio executives anticipated; with a production budget of $28 million, the film has made $180 million worldwide in the four weeks since its debut (this, despite all the uproar that surrounded the accuracy of the F. Gary Gray-helmed feature). The success of these films are all the more astonishing given that summer is typically the time when comic-book blockbusters dominate theaters, from 1980’s Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (opening weekend: $10.8 million) to 2008’s The Dark Knight ($158 million) to Marvel’s endless onslaught of Robert Downey Jr-assisted superhero hits.
By non-Hollywood standards, the success of The Perfect Guy, Straight Outta Compton, and War Room is less surprising. Audiences of color have long yearned for visions that mirror their reality, their everydayness on the silver screen—even if it is a relationship thriller (the audience for The Perfect Guy was 60 percent black and 70 percent female). I remember coming of age in the 90s with images of blackness, in its varying splendor and imperfection, being reflected back at me: this ranged from Spike Lee’s early joints (School Daze, Mo Betta Blues, Crooklyn) to Eddie Murphy’s staggering run that began in the 1980s (Harlem Nights, Boomerang, The Nutty Professor). These were people I knew.
Not unlike this weekend, Murphy’s Coming to America—a 1988 film about an African prince who travels to New York City in search of love—debuted during summer and topped the box office, amassing $21 million its first weekend and dethroning the wildly popular Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which had been released the week before. Here was a film not grounded in race, but one that chronicled the travails of a twenty-something man hungering for independence and in search of The Perfect Woman. It was the typical love story remixed for Hollywood screens.
Thus, not every black movie needs to be about race, and the sustained dominance of The Perfect Guy, Straight Outta Compton, and War Room is proof of that fact. Hollywood shouldn’t underestimate the power of the black box office—by which I mean, the economic potential of black movie-goers and the types of movies they want to see. It’s no longer surprising, or it shouldn’t be anyway, when movies like this do well. Not every film catered to a black audience—or, more generally, any non-white group—needs to be A Movie About Race (although, films like Dear White People are appreciated). There is often more power, for instance, in displaying the obstacles one teenage girl battles as she attempts to etch herself into the world (Pariah), or by simply showcasing the firm determination of friendship when old skeletons suddenly make themselves known (The Best Man). In these worlds, blackness is a default, not the butt of a joke or the root of a problem.
These three films are just the most recent examples in a long history of black films succeeding because they displayed an image of blackness that was not overtly race-specific. They weren’t the first to succeed on their own terms. And they won’t be the last.
[Image via Shutterstock]