A modified version of this post originally appeared on Medium
A few weeks ago Nick Evershed of the Guardian’s Datablog published a fascinating statistical analysis listing the films since 1970 in which critical reception and audience appreciation saw the biggest disparities.
To create his list, Evershed analyzed a selection of 10,000 films from the Rotten Tomatoes database and compared average user rating to average critic rating, subtracting the latter from the former. He then created a list of films which scored high with audiences while getting panned by critics (these films received the highest, or “most positive” scores on Evershed’s index), as well as a list of those movies most beloved by critics and most hated by audiences (these films got the lowest, or “most negative” scores on the index). See his piece for a full description of the methodology. (For clarity, I’ll call the two lists the “fans love/critics hate” list and the “critics love/fans hate” list.)
Both lists look extremely eclectic at first glance. At the top of the fans-love/critics-hate list is the 1986 BMX-romp Rad; elsewhere on the list are Scary Movie 5, The Boondock Saints, and Grind. Daisy Miller won the critics-love/fans-hate list; Tropic of Cancer, Antz, and, perhaps surprisingly, Spy Kids, also made the cut. Aside from more obviously commercial ventures appearing more often on the fan favorites list,a pattern doesn’t really leap out at you.
But then Evershed did a meta-analysis of the data, creating a top-200 of each list and looking at the actors and directors appearing most often. Looking at this data, an unsettling trend becomes immediately apparent—and it’s racial.
Take a look at the list of the actors appearing most often in the fans-love/critics-hate list. The actor’s name is followed by their number of appearances on the list:
Actors with 3 or more appearances in the most positive films:
- Ice Cube - 4
- Martin Lawrence - 4
- Vin Diesel - 3
- Richard Pryor - 3
- Angelina Jolie - 3
- Nia Long - 3
- Gerard Butler - 3
- Hilary Duff - 3
- Tobin Bell - 3
Of the 9 actors on the list, 5—including the 2 in first place—are black. Now let’s look at the list of the actors popping up the most in the critics-love/fans-hate list:
Actors with 3 or more appearances in the most negative films
- Jeff Bridges - 5
- Bruce Dern - 4
- Nick Nolte - 3
- Dennis Quaid - 3
- Richard Dreyfuss - 3
- Paul Newman - 3
- Clint Eastwood - 3
- Helen Hunt - 3
- Tom Berenger - 3
As white as the day is long. (This list also includes two fewer women.)
The same trend appears in the directors lists. Of the 17 directors popping up most frequently on the fans-love/critics-hate list, 4 are black (Tyler Perry, Keenen Ivory Wayans, DJ Pooh, and F. Gary Gray), and one, Justin Lin, is Taiwanese-American. That’s nearly 1 in 4 black, and almost 30% people of color. Perry and Wayans tie for first place with Joel Schumacher, at 3 films a piece. (Evershed included directors with 2 or more appearances, rather than the minimum 3 he used for actors, because there were fewer directors with that many.)
Look at the critics-love/fans-hate directors list, and the inverse trend continues: of the 21 directors that placed, not one is black, brown, or Asian. Jonathan Demme tops this list with 5 appearances; Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, and Steven Soderbergh all show up as well.
This pattern of fans responding positively to the work of black actors and directors while critics respond negatively reasserts itself when you take a second look at the original lists of movies. The fans-love/critics-hate list features several films featuring mostly black casts, including Sparkle, Belly, and Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Though the critics-love/fans-hate list includes one film starring Pam Grier (The Big Doll House), that’s about it as far as racial diversity is concerned.
The trend is undeniable: the fans-love/critics-hate category is disproportionately populated by actors and directors of color. Meanwhile, actors and directors of color are absent almost entirely from the critics-love/fans-hate category.
What’s trickier to grasp is an explanation for this trend.
Before even thinking about crossing that bridge, it’s important to remember that this is one analysis of one data set. It’s easy to poke holes in Evershed’s methodology; one commenter observed that Rad only has 5 critics’ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, even though it won the fans-love/critics-hate category. (Evershed responded that filtering out films by number of reviews isn’t possible in the Rotten Tomatoes API.) Another commenter pointed out that only “Top Critic” ratings should have been used, since many of the critic reviews compiled by RT are by amateur bloggers, muddying the category of “critic” quite a bit.(That’s another feature unavailable in the API, Evershed noted.) Then there’s the fact that the “audiences” in Rotten Tomatoes audience ratings are just Rotten Tomatoes users who have submitted reviews. That’s a very specific subset of the population, one probably not reflective of American moviegoers as a whole. In any case, we have know way of knowing.
So there are problems. Yet, in this particular data set, the trend remains.
I could see this data set providing material for debate both for racists (“black people make worse films than whites”) and for those of us apt to notice and criticize racism (“critics review films made by blacks more harshly than they do those made by whites”). Though the second argument is actually plausible, and has the ring of truth, one would need to do a far deeper statistical exploration to go there, one which I’m not capable of, and which the Rotten Tomatoes API probably doesn’t allow for.
Basically, I have no idea what to think about this information. But it startled me, and I thought it was worth pointing out.
I hope someone with a keener grasp of statistical analysis explores it further.