Earlier this month, Scarlett Johansson scored headlines and spurred plenty of feminist high fives because Forbes dubbed her the “highest grossing actor of 2016.” Thanks to the modest bump from the Coen Bros’ comedy Hail, Caesar!, she edged out her Captain America: Civil War co-stars Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. for the #1 spot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Forbes’ top ten was littered with superhero movie cast members, from Batman V. Superman’s Amy Adams, Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, to Suicide Squad’s Margot Robbie and Will Smith, to Deadpool’s Ryan Reynolds. But there’s a big fat asterisk that needs to be applied to this mostly white list, because Forbes doesn’t count animated films in their calculations. When you do, the numbers paint a very different picture of who makes for successful box office.
Business Insider notes that Dwayne Johnson would have been a contender, courtesy of Central Intelligence ($216 mil worldwide) and Moana ($347 million and counting). But entertainment journalist Rebecca Theodore took to Twitter to point out the contest wouldn’t even be close when you consider the hits Idris Elba had this year:
…I don't have a calculator on hand, but if you crunch those numbers, Idris Elba made box office BANK this year. Stop playing games.— Rebecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) December 29, 2016
Here’s a list of the top-grossing movies of 2016 from Box Office Mojo:
Elba co-starred in three of the top five: Zootopia, The Jungle Book, and Finding Dory. And Star Trek Beyond—the fourth of six movies he had open this year—comes in at the number 23 spot with $343.4 million.
Of course, Johansson was in Jungle Book too, and the animated musical Sing. So let’s factor in all of the above and see how things shake out:
It’s not even close.
Perhaps Forbes doesn’t count animated films because it assumes stars don’t really sell those movies. That’d be news to the studios who dole out fat paychecks to secure A-listers like Johnson and Johansson to voice colorful characters. But beyond that, how does Forbes justify putting Henry Cavill—who only appeared in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—on the list, but not newcomer Neel Sethi, when his Jungle Book trounced BvS at the box office? While all other actors in the film did voicework, Sethi was there in every scene, in the flesh.
And to overlook Neel Sethi is just disrespectful. Again "The Jungle Book" made $966mil compared to BvS's total of $873 mil…— Rebecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) December 29, 2016
…but yes overlook the Asian-American lead so you can keep Whitewashing roles and say "Asian leads can't sell tickets" - I SEE Y'ALL.— Rebecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) December 29, 2016
There are more peculiarities the more you look. Like why do Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. get a higher rating than Chadwick Boseman, who not only had Captain America: Civil War to his credit, but also Gods of Egypt ($150 mil worldwide)? Looking over Forbes’ vague qualifications, it seems both Sethi and Boseman were discounted for not being “top actors.” But what about Kevin Hart, who had two-starring vehicles and a comedy doc with his name in it hit this year?
Kevin Hart 2016:— Rebecca Theodore (@FilmFatale_NYC) December 30, 2016
Secret Life of Pets - $875.4 mil
What Now? 23.5 mil
Central Intelligence 216.9 mil
Ride Along 2 - 124.2 mil
Total: 1.24 bil
Look. Forbes has the right to choose the criteria for their lists. But those choices create a narrative—intentional or not—about what succeeds in Hollywood. If you look at their list, you’d think that superhero movies about white people are the only thing that got audiences turning out in massive numbers this year. And that’s categorically false. Animated films took three of the top five spots, four if you count The Jungle Book as animated, as Forbes may have. So, if you’re claiming to be weighing in on the profitability of Hollywood stars, ignoring this genre seems a willful and poor choice.
I don’t think Forbes set out to create a list that’s garishly promoting the status quo/misconception that only white movie stars can truly thrive in Hollywood (save the Will Smith exception here, that decriers can hold up like the “I have a black friend” excuse.) I think they set out to create a feel-good puff piece featuring beautiful well-known stars in very popular movies so that readers would click through the full gallery and score them those sweet ad dollars. But in doing so, Forbes has fed a dangerous myth that promotes exclusion in casting and creation. They’ve held up a white woman by blatantly ignoring the contributions and box office successes of men of color. If that’s not the story they intend to tell, they need to do better.
Kristy Puchko is striving to do better.