Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Why Whites Avoid Movies With Black Actors

• May 04, 2011 • 2:59 PM

New research suggests white audiences tend to stay away from movies featuring minorities due to the assumption that they are not the films’ intended audience.

In terms of box-office grosses, this is an extraordinary week for Hollywood: The No. 1 movie in America features a mixed-race cast.

Granted, that movie is Fast Five, the fifth installment of the Fast and Furious action series. Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris called these films “loud, ludicrous and visually incoherent,” but added that they are “the most progressive force in Hollywood today.”

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 on racial statistics in the realm of the entertainment industry 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.

White moviegoers seem convinced that films with black stars are not made for them; they are not the films’ intended audience.

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.

After looking over the pages, which featured small photos of the principal cast members, participants were asked a series of questions about their movie-going habits, racial attitudes and desire to see each movie, either in a theater or at home.

“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.

“Moreover, this effect was significant despite the very subtle race manipulation. The movie synopses, which were front and center on the page, were unaltered. The only manipulation was in the thumbnail pictures attached to the actors’ names.”

Is this evidence of continuing racist attitudes on the part of white Americans? Not necessarily. Participants were asked whether they perceived they were similar to the characters, and whether they considered the movie’s plot relevant to their own lives. Weaver found the race of the actors did not significantly affect their replies.

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. Thus, racial statistics in this area could shift.

This won’t happen anytime soon: Hollywood is famously risk-averse. Then again, the enormous success of Fast Five, which made more than $83 million domestically in its first weekend of release, may inspire other producers to take a risk on multiracial casts — perhaps even for films in which the real stars aren’t the cars.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.