Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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