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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Will white moviegoers go see 'The Secret of Life of Bees'?

October 15, 2008 |  4:24 pm

Bees_3My colleague John Horn has a story in Thursday's Calendar section that grapples with the always touchy question--why do white moviegoers shy away from movies with largely African American casts? "Amistad," Steven Spielberg's 1997 slavery epic, was his lowest-grossing movie in 20 years. Even "Ray," Taylor Hackford's Oscar-nominated musical biography of Ray Charles, drew an overwhelmingly black audience.

Will the same thing happen to "The Secret Life of Bees," a highbrow literary adaptation from an African American filmmaker (Gina Prince-Bythewood) that features a largely black female cast (Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys)? The film, distributed by Fox Searchlight, is going wide Friday in nearly 1,600 theaters, which means it will be playing in both suburban and urban neighborhoods. The book had a large white female following, but according to Horn, research shows that black moviegoers are showing roughly twice as much interest in seeing the film as whites.

Horn raises an intriguing political parallel:

"Pundits and election strategists have been deliberating feverishly whether white voters who tell interviewers they intend to vote for Sen. Barack Obama for president will really do so once they enter the polling booth. While the discrepancy known as the Bradley effect (named after former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley's 1982 loss in the California gubernatorial election, in which he consistently led in polling) may prove to be a minor factor in the year's presidential race, it is still a prominent concern within Hollywood, as movies made by and with African Americans often struggle to attract white supporters, both at the box office and within the studio's executive offices."

It's been more than 25 years since Bradley lost after leading in the polls. How much things changed? And are movie audiences more or less honest about their moviegoing habits than potential presidential voters? Those aren't easy questions to answer. But this seems to be one of those rare examples where how a movie does in its opening weekend might have a little bearing on how we look at the world. Stay tuned. We'll revisit this subject in the coming days.

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