As Morris noted, nonwhite actors played major roles in only two of the 30 top-grossing films of 2010. Studio executives believe white audiences prefer to see white characters, while black audiences want to see black characters, so they increasingly make films for each demographic.
Are they being too cynical? Newly published research suggests the answer is, sadly, no. But it also suggests this troubling tendency may largely be the effect of the studios’ all-too-effective marketing strategies.
Andrew Weaver of the Indiana University Department of Telecommunications explored how the racial makeup of the cast impacts the preferences of white filmgoers. Writing in the Journal of Communication, he described an experiment in which 68 white college undergraduates read 12 fictional synopses of new romantic comedies.
“Web pages were created for each movie, and the race of the characters was manipulated to create six versions: an all-white cast; a 70 percent white cast with two white leads; a 70 percent white cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with a white and a black lead; a 70 percent black cast with two black leads; and an all-black cast,” he noted.
“The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,” Weaver reports. “Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity.”
A separate study that used the same technique to assess non-romantic films produced different results. For the participants, 79 white undergraduates, the race of the actors did not influence their desire to see the film.
But a follow-up study by Weaver, which has yet to be published, suggests that result may be an outlier. In it, he used the same technique, but his participants were drawn from a more diverse group in terms of age and education. Specifically, he analyzed the responses of 150 white people between the ages of 18 and 69.
“White participants were more interested in seeing films with white actors than films with black actors,” he found. “This main effect was quite robust, occurring regardless of gender, age, previous movie viewing or the genre of the movie.
However, the actors’ race did have a big impact on another issue: Whether the participants felt they were part of the “intended audience” for the film. Their likelihood to agree decreased significantly when 70 percent (or 100 percent) of the cast was black, and they were less likely to express interest in seeing those films.
This suggests to Weaver that white reluctance to see films with black actors can be overcome. The perception that “this movie is not for me” could be changed “if more mainstream movies cast minorities,” he writes. If multiracial casts became the norm and movies were marketed to all demographics, the stigma could fade away.