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Sorry to Bother You is the latest victim of the movie industry’s “black films don’t travel” myth

It’s a success at the US box office, but director Boots Riley says it’s struggling to find distribution overseas.

Lakeith Stanfield appears in Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You
Doug Emmett/Sundance Institute
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Sorry to Bother You has been selling a lot of movie tickets in the US. The wild social satire starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson finished its first month in theaters having made $14 million — a lot of money for a “specialty” release like this one.

But on Friday, the film’s writer and director, Boots Riley, tweeted about the difficulty the film is having finding distribution overseas:

Riley’s statement that distributors are claiming “black movies” — which usually means movies with primarily black casts — don’t perform well internationally is not surprising. For a long time, “black films don’t travel” was considered axiomatic. Even if a given film made good money in the US, distributors assumed that overseas audiences wouldn’t go see it. And they had lots of poor international box office numbers to back it up.

Of course, that could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: If a distributor believes a film won’t perform well, it may not invest in any sort of real marketing push, which presumably results in fewer people knowing about the movie and buying a ticket.

Plus, over the past few years, evidence to support the idea that films about black characters won’t play well overseas has been eroding. Black Panther did massive overseas business, far exceeding expectations. So did Straight Outta Compton, Hidden Figures, and the 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight, which actually did better abroad than it did in the US. And before those titles, there were plenty of other “black films” that succeeded overseas.

That doesn’t mean Sorry to Bother You — a kooky dystopian capitalist critique — would necessarily do well internationally, of course. It’s not to everyone’s taste; it’s not a Marvel property; its cast isn’t necessarily as bankable as the stars of a movie like Hidden Figures; and it’s not based on a true story like Straight Outta Compton.

But Riley’s point is well taken: The idea that “black films” don’t travel persists, and distributors are still using it as an excuse not to take a risk on a film abroad — even if that movie is doing well in the US. Black Panther may have definitively busted the myth, but it might take a lot more evidence for the movie industry to catch up.