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Inside the black comedy boom

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Chuck Zlotnick

One of the biggest movies to hit multiplexes this month likely won’t be a superhero flick or a dystopian drama. Barbershop: The Next Cut, the third installment in the series, is leading a wave of black comedies at the box office, including the comedic horror flick Meet the Blacks and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s action-comedy (with a cute kitten), Keanu.

This mini-surge comes on the heels of the controversy over the lack of black dramas and performances nominated for Academy Awards. Ironically, the audience for black comedies has never been stronger. According to recent data, minority audiences purchased 37 percent of the 1.3 billion tickets sold in the U.S. in 2014. 

“With the general market, you have movies coming out all the time,” explains Jeff Clanagan, CEO of Codeblack Films. “Because there’s a lack of movies [geared toward black filmgoers] coming out, the audience is much more loyal.”

And comedies targeted primarily at African-American audiences mean big profits for Hollywood. The original Barbershop, released in 2002, grossed $76 million on a $12 million budget. The Next Cut (out April 15), which sees Ice Cube’s character save his shop from gang violence, is on track to open in the double-digit millions. Already this spring, The Perfect Match — a romantic comedy starring Terrence Jenkins and crooner Cassie Ventura — has grossed more than $9 million, placing it in the top 10 with the animated smash Zootopia and the third Divergent film, Allegiant.

Often released between Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend and summer, black ensemble comedies succeed, in part, because they are reaching a historically underserved audience. 

“Growing up, I certainly felt like I wasn’t seeing myself on screen,” says The Next Cut director Malcolm D. Lee. “I felt that there were stories that weren’t be told, that I could tell and that other people would like.”

“They certainly represent a lot of people who don’t find themselves represented in movies very often,” adds Keanu director Peter Atencio of costars Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. “[Keanu] sheds new light on a whole variety of underrepresented people.”

Despite ongoing efforts, onscreen representation of minorities hasn’t improved much. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California found that the industry has made little to no progress in presenting more nonwhite characters on film. “I feel like Barbershop is just as valid as any Judd Apatow movie,” says Lee. “Everyone can relate to getting gussied up.”

This goes to prove a larger point: Ultimately the appeal of these comedies is color-blind, or should be. “Everybody wants to laugh,” says Key, pointing to the mainstream appeal of cat caper Keanu. “A dude slipping on a banana peel is a dude slipping on a banana peel. It doesn’t matter if he’s black or white.”

The industry finally appears to be realizing, or at least discovering, that making movies that appeal to a broad range of people can only increase profits. 

“This is not Hollywood being purely altruistic,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “If audiences bring in enough money to make these movies profitable, Hollywood will keep making more of them.” Seems like the Barbershop crew may have the last laugh.

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