Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: What's Really "Black" About All These Black Movie Remakes?

Illustration by Maria Corte

The Hollywood Reporter's columnist looks at two new takes on originally white-cast films — 'What Men Want' and 'Little' — and sees the needle of racial equality nudging forward "a bit."

Hollywood has a long history of metamorphizing movies that featured white casts into movies with predominantly black casts. Most famously, The Wizard of Oz (1939) was remade as The Wiz (1978), but other color-coordinated remakes include Annie (2014), About Last Night (2014), Steel Magnolias (2012) and Death at a Funeral (2010). Within the past few months, we've had two such films: What Men Want (based on Mel Gibson's 2000 comedy What Women Want) and Little (less a remake and more a recycling of Big, Freaky Friday, Prelude to a Kiss and 18 Again). But is there anything especially "black" about these remakes that reinterpret the original film within the context of African American culture, offering insights into that culture? Or are they just the same story for a different audience?

One reason to colorize a movie with black and brown faces is to make the film more appealing to people of color who don't often get to see people who look like them dominating the cast. In 2016, 86.1 percent of the leads in top theatrical films were white, while only 13.9 percent were people of color, even though the latter group made up 38.7 percent of the U.S. population. It's a nice change to see movies that, even if they're not about the black community, at least take place within it. These remakes also give filmmakers the opportunity to update the story to appeal to a younger audience not familiar with the original and who are wondering why people are carrying flip phones and wearing leg warmers.

Another reason to alchemize white casts into black is to show how the same story told from a different cultural perspective can illuminate and celebrate those cultural differences. That can be done by incorporating traditions, behaviors and beliefs unique to that culture. But it can also be accomplished by doing nothing different. After all, to watch black characters endure and overcome the same obstacles that the white characters faced in the same story presents a universality that emphasizes our similarities rather than our differences.

What Men Want falls into this category of good-naturedly showing that black or white, we all struggle to find our voice. There's nothing particularly African American about the circumstances or the protagonist's conflicts. More important to the plot than the race swap is the gender swap. In the original, Gibson's character is a womanizing, sexist jerk who suddenly can read women's thoughts. At first, he uses this power to exploit women but he grows to become more humble and compassionate. In the remake, Taraji P. Henson isn't sexist, but in her desperation to make it in a profession dominated by men, she's emulated the men she competes against — aggressive, conniving, selfish — and in the process has lost her identity. Because the focus is on the challenges of gender roles that are the same regardless of race, to spend more time on African American culture might distract from that universal message.

Little is also about women finding their true voice. Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall) is a successful businesswoman who was bullied as a child and grows up protecting her heart by being a bully herself, especially to her assistant (Issa Rae). When she's transformed into her 13-year-old self, she is able to more clearly see how social expectations of women bully them into becoming something other than who they really are. It's a funny film with a solid message and a few race-specific moments that ring true to black audiences, such as young Jordan slapping away the hands of two white characters reaching to touch her teased-out afro.

However, there are other nods to black culture that are less enlightened. In one scene, young Jordan is being rebellious with her assistant, who starts spanking Jordan, shouting to parents looking on, "Start spanking your children!" A black security guard radios in a "BMW," which means "black mama whoopin'." The guard then tears up watching the spanking and confesses that it makes him miss his mother. This reference is not necessarily inaccurate. A University of Chicago study revealed that African Americans spank their children more than white parents despite 50 years of studies concluding that spanking causes long-term damage. Another disturbing element: Jordan's assistant is aggressively flirty with every man she sees, perpetuating the Jezebel stereotype of the past. Encouraging girls to find their voice doesn't mean confining their choices to stereotypes.

Nonetheless, it's refreshing to see movies, even comedies, about the struggles of black women in business because they make it seem normal and therefore a possible path for young black girls. A remake should be a reimagining and revitalizing of the original, and both of these movies accomplish that. They are welcome additions to the black canon because both subtly nudge the needle of racial equality forward while still giving their audiences a couple hours of fun.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a THR contributor and NBA Hall of Famer.

This story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.