Every Time Hollywood Made the ‘Black Version’ of a Successful Movie

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Marvel’s Black Panther, set for wide release this week, is poised to become the biggest film of all time to feature a predominantly black cast — and the biggest February movie premiere in cinematic history. The film bucks a rather odious stereotype in Hollywood: the idea that movies starring black people don’t appeal to broad audiences. Historically, this false belief has meant that films about black people aren’t produced as often as films about white people.

“Movies about black people?” you say. “They’ve been making those for years! I’ve seen Soul Plane and Breakin’ 2!”

Some important distinctions must be made here: There are movies starring black people (every Will Smith or Dwayne Johnson movie), there are movies for black people (that’s where your Soul Plane and your Breakin’ 2 come in), and there are movies about black people. Movies about black people come from our point of view, feature issues specific to our community, and are crafted by black filmmakers. These are rare, but becoming less so every year (see: Black Panther, Moonlight, Mudbound, et al.). Movies starring black people are designed to appeal to every single person on the planet, because they cost hundreds of millions of dollars — but even these are rare, because the conventional wisdom in the film industry is that black leads cannot carry a picture overseas.

That one in the middle — movies for black people — has represented the majority of cinematic releases starring actors of African descent for decades: If white executives were in need of an “urban” hit, they’d simply slap black faces into a proven genre or, worse yet, set the film in “the ghetto” and call it a day. These sorts of films make it clear that, despite years of purported effort, Hollywood still doesn’t quite get the African-American audience. Either we’re patronized to with period-piece awards-bait fare, talked down to via lowest-common denominator comedy, or inserted lazily into a tried-and-true formula.

“What if we made a black version of X?” is likely a question still posed in pitch meetings all the time. What follows is a list of the most heinous instances of Hollywood pandering to black audiences with rip-offs, parodies, and “urban reboots” — ranked by just how egregious they are.

15. Leonard Part 6 (or “What If We Made a Black Version of James Bond?”) (1987)
Unfortunately, we’ve begun with the Bill Cosby section of the list. The elevator pitch for this film is as mind-boggling as the finished product: “Imagine a black James Bond, but he’s a retired father played by Bill Cosby.” Cosby is Leonard, the CIA’s greatest agent in the history of the world, but somehow also a total moron, and he must save the world from an angry, militant vegetarian. At one point, Leonard subdues a villain by shaking a hot dog in his face and shoving it in his mouth. If you want to know why Idris Elba hasn’t been cast as James Bond yet, just blame Leonard Part 6.

14. Live and Let Die (or “What If We Made a Black Version of James Bond … But Only the Bad Guys Were Black?”) (1973)
The actual Bond franchise has rarely been particularly race-conscious, but in 1973, Eon Productions, the rights holders for 007, made an attempt to attract black audiences to the cinema to see their very, very white hero. Based on the Ian Fleming novel of the same name, Bond is sent to Harlem to investigate a notorious drug kingpin named Mr. Big (spoiler alert: it’s Yaphet Kotto in whiteface). The film features voodoo, cheesy stereotypes, and a passable funk music score by George Martin. Even the most die-hard black James Bond fan watches this one through their fingers, cringing at the camp of it all.

13. Scary Movie (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Scream?”) (2000)
In the early 2000s, parody became one of the most popular vehicles for Hollywood’s desire to adapt formats for black audiences. It was natural to look to the Wayans family for a send-up of the wildly successful Scream franchise, after they blew up the blaxplotation genre with 1988’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and the 1990s Fox series In Living Color. Because it was parody, it wasn’t as transparently pandering as something like Blackenstein (see below), but the black faces on the poster certainly helped define the perceived audience for the film, which ended up being a huge mainstream hit and spawning multiple sequels.

12. Phat Beach (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Beach Blanket Bingo?”) (1996)
Of all the “black people make a white thing ‘ghetto’” movies, Phat Beach, directed by Entourage creator Doug Ellin, is the most fascinating. It’s a “hip-hop beach movie,” which is odd on its face. It also stars Coolio. The beach movie was a popular teen-movie genre in the 1950s and 1960s, during the height of America’s fascination with surf culture. West Coast hip-hop in the 1990s had absolutely no interest in surfing and the beach. Phat Beach was an oddly transparent attempt to put black faces in a previously successful milieu. But, according to this Complex piece, Phat Beach has developed something of a cult following in the modern hip-hop community. Sure. Why not?

11. Black Knight (or “What If We Made a Black Version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court?”) (2000)
Here’s another obvious title that makes sure anyone and everyone understands just what this movie is about. Martin Lawrence stars as a modern African-American man magically transported to medieval times, in a very loose translation of Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Black Knight came out a year after Scary Movie, and is less a parody and more a one-note joke about black dudes carrying swords. Hard pass.

10. Blankman (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Batman?”) (1994)
As socially significant as Black Panther might be, it’s far from the first superhero movie to feature a black lead character. Blade, Spawn, Blankman, and Meteor Man all came out in the 1990s and enjoyed varying levels of financial and critical success. In the ’90s, black superheroes were a natural move for the industry, as the first comic-book movie boom was in full swing; if a studio couldn’t have Batman, why not his black equivalent? Even broadcast television got involved: the Fox network released the series M.A.N.T.I.S., starring Carl Lumbly as a paraplegic billionaire who uses a special robo-suit to fight crime. Sadly, no film was ever released under the title “Blackman,” though maybe there’s a draft of Damon Wayans’s Blankman with that written on the cover page (and someone at the studio realized the downside of using that name).

9. Johnson Family Vacation (or “What If We Made a Black Version of National Lampoon’s Vacation?”) (2004)
You could be fooled into thinking this one is an extension of the National Lampoon’s Vacation series. After all, the word “vacation” is in the title. It is not. Cedric the Entertainer steps in for Chevy Chase as the frazzled suburban dad who uses a trip across the country as an excuse to bring his family closer together. Hijinks ensue and various characters learn valuable life lessons. For the Knowles completists out there, this movie co-stars Solange as one of the Johnson family daughters. If that doesn’t convince you to watch this movie, maybe this scene of Cedric mistaking a deadly alligator in his bed for an abnormally large erection will do it.

8. Steel (or “What if We Made a Black Version of Superman?”) (1997)
For the most part, ’90s movies were so amused by the idea of a black superhero that they couldn’t stop giggling at themselves. Or, as was the case with Spawn and Blade, black superhero movies were simply movies starring black actors, but without much of an interest in uniquely black stories. Meteor Man, directed by African-American comedian Robert Townsend, was an outlier in that it was a uniquely black story about a black neighborhood besieged by gang violence that’s rescued by a mild-mannered school teacher who received superpowers from a meteor. One film was especially heinous, though: the cinematic adaptation of DC Comics’ Steel, starring Shaquille O’Neal and Judd Nelson.

As Warner Bros. struggled to update Superman for the ’90s, they turned to a quick-fix idea: create a movie about one of the ancillary characters in the Superman universe, take any and all connection to Superman out of the story, and cast Shaq (an avid reader of Superman comics). According to the original production notes for the movie, director Kenneth Johnson went to South Central Los Angeles to sit with a group of black kids to “ensure that the language of some of the characters rang true.”

It didn’t.

7. Fifty Shades of Black (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Fifty Shades of Grey?”) (2016)
Hollywood went back to the Wayans well with 2016’s Fifty Shades of Grey parody. Marlon Wayans is the rich industrialist with a kinky sex life, and once again, the main gag is that black people are doing white people things, like flying in helicopters and enjoying S&M. This hits at the main issue that nags a lot of these films: In most cases, it’s simply enough for the writers to rely on the novelty of race to be the driving theme of the movie. Despite how retrograde and thoughtless these films are, they will continue to be made because they earn small profits based solely on the fact that they are cheap to produce and distribute.

6. Blacula (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Dracula?”) (1972)
For some reason, the film industry loves putting black folks in harm’s way. Not only do black people frequently show up as frothy-mouthed victims in slasher movies, they’re also the stars of cheap knockoff horror movies; Leprechaun: In the Hood, Tales from the Hood, and the like infested multiplexes across the nation in the 1990s, injecting West Coast gangsta rap aesthetics into typical horror conventions. Eventually, the Scary Movie franchise would take this to its logical conclusion: outright parody. But none of these films would exist without the OG: 1972’s Blacula, directed by African-American William Crain and starring William Marshall as the titular African prince who’s turned into a vampire by Dracula himself. Cross-pollinating the hugely successful blaxploitation genre with the English Hammer horror aesthetic proved popular enough to warrant a sequel — Scream, Blacula Scream — one year later.

The plot is essentially a retread of Bram Stoker’s original story of unrequited love across centuries, and makes Blacula out to be a tragic figure rather than a pure monster. As silly as the title and concept of Blacula are, this is made slightly less problematic thanks to the presence of Crain as the director, who maintained a sense of authenticity.

5. Soul Plane (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Airplane!?”) (2004)
Twenty-four years after the hit disaster-movie parody Airplane! was released, someone had the bright idea to do a parody of a parody, but with black people. Soul Plane features a young Kevin Hart winning a lawsuit against an airline and using his winnings to start his own air-travel company where the planes are purple, the wheels have hydraulics and spinners, and lots of people smoke weed and have sex during flights. Tom Arnold fills in as “the white guy” in this truly abysmal film.

4. Who’s Your Caddy? (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Caddyshack?”) (2007)
Finally, a black Caddyshack! Stepping in for Rodney Dangerfield in the role of the unruly country-club member is Big Boi. Yeah, Big Boi from Outkast. Presumably, Cedric the Entertainer passed. As has regularly been the case on this list, the concept being “urbanized” is borderline ancient in film-industry time. Caddyshack was released in 1980. Who’s Your Caddy? came out in 2007.

3. Blackenstein (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Frankenstein?”) (1973)
Thanks to the success of Blacula, the film industry was eager to capitalize on a perceived market for black versions of classic monsters. Hence, the release of Blackenstein in 1973 — an unfortunately titled film about an African-American Vietnam War vet who dies and is brought back to life by a crackpot doctor. The poster, with alternate title Black Frankenstein, does not feature the monster. Rather, it’s a scantily clad woman screaming, which shows you how much the studio believed in their creature effects. The film was directed by white helmer William A. Levey, known for schlocky horror work, which might account for its inability to be as authentic as its vampire predecessor.

2. Leprechaun in the Hood/Leprechaun Back 2 Tha Hood (or “What If We Made a Black Version of Leprechaun?”) (2000/2003)
The Leprechaun series was a reliable, low-budget franchise for tiny Trimark Pictures starring Warwick Davis of Star Wars Ewok fame. The original 1993 installment will forever go down in history as the film debut of Jennifer Aniston, but not much else. By the year 2000, Trimark was in the process of merging with Lionsgate and the Leprechaun franchise was looking tired. In an attempt to refresh the brand, the Leprechaun was sent to “the hood” to recover his magic flute. In the process, he drinks 40s, meets Ice-T, and gets high. It’s horrible, but the novelty of it all led to a sequel, in which the Leprechaun goes “back 2 tha hood,” which is a direct quote from the title.

1. The Honeymooners (or “What If We Made a Black Version of The Honeymooners?”) (2005)
In 2005, the year after Johnson Family Vacation came out, Mr. Cedric the Entertainer would star in a black reboot of the Jackie Gleason sitcom The Honeymooners, co-starring Mike Epps, Gabrielle Union, and Regina Hall. The Honeymooners might be the most galling expression of Hollywood’s predilection for “blackening” proven commodities, rather than generating new ideas from black creatives. We’re talking about a reboot of a sitcom specifically about white blue-collar life in mid-20th-century America, a show remembered fondly by a generation of people who experienced segregation. If you love The Honeymooners, do you want to see a version of it with black actors? If you are black, do care about The Honeymooners? Does anyone remember that this was a real movie?

Every Time Hollywood Made the ‘Black Version’ of a Hit Movie