In the wake of the historic election of Barack Obama, Americans are preparing for and adjusting to the idea of black president in a distinctly American way.
IMDb's MOVIEmeter ratings, based on the consumer behavior of millions of IMDb users, reveal that directly following the election, viewers flocked to films and television programs depicting interracial interactions of all kinds. In a peculiar art/life nexus, a portion of the electorate is evidently grappling with race relations by watching movies and television programs on the topic, with some of these viewers going on to rate, comment, and discuss online.
Apparently, Comcast's decision to offer Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in the Free Movies On Demand section from Oct. 10th -Nov. 13th was neither hilarious coincidence, nor bizarre oversight.
According to IMDb, the popularity of the original Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), increased by 205% 'since last week' for the week of Sunday, Nov. 16th. That version is considered a classic on its cinematic merits and was included in the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Movies of the Past 100 years.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is ostensibly about interracial marriage -- a liberal couple finds their principles challenged when their daughter brings home a black fiancé. But the subtext of the movie is the gap between advocating values such as 'diversity' and acting on that the conviction in practice -- the same principal behind the 'Bradley Effect' voters heard so much about this campaign season.
That theme may have had particular resonance for Americans unsure whether the US electorate would actually vote for a black candidate, despite his apparent advantage in the polls leading up to the elections. And following the election, to those marveling that we did so in the end, and digesting the implications of Obama's victory.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, of course, is widely considered the iconic movie about dormant racial anxiety in America. Some, during the campaign season, took to using the film's title in adjective form ('it all just seems very guess-who's-coming-to dinner'), often as shorthand for the embarrassing undercurrent of racial tension that seemed to color the political debate at times. Three days before the election, New York Times Op-ed columnist Frank Rich wrote a piece drawing explicit parallels between Senator Obama and Sydney Poitier's character in the film.
Tellingly, however, interest in other more obscure versions of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner increased over the same time period as well. The popularity ratings of a 1975 ABC TV movie, a 1998 TV Series released in New Zealand, and a short-lived 2003 UK series of the same name increased by 103%, 58%, and 49% respectively.
IMDb users also sought out less obviously relevant movies and TV programs -- a wide array of racially themed fare gained popularity around the election.
The popularity of Carbon Copy (1981) -- "An Upper-Class WASP businessman's life goes into a comedic tailspin when he learns he has an African American son from a previous relationship" rose 21% since last week (for the week of Sunday, Nov. 16th) according to MOVIEmeter.
Jungle Fever -- "Friends and family of a married black architect react in different ways to his affair with an Italian secretary" -- also saw an increase in IMDb popularity over the same period, gaining 15 percentage points.
Even Diff'rent Strokes -- "The misadventures of a rich Manhattan family who adopt the children of their late African American maid" -- received a modest boost, gaining four percentage points.
As of Sunday, November 23rd the weekly popularity rating of all versions of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner are in decline. Carbon Copy, Jungle Fever, and Diff'rent Strokes have shed percentage points too, suggesting a distinct peak in interest levels surrounding the election.
Unlike polls, IMDb ratings are based not on self-reported data or extrapolation from small statistical samplings, but on the actual behavior of millions of users, most accessing the site from the comfort of their homes.
The rising interest in movies and programming dealing with interracial relations, particularly after the election, presents an unusually candid peek into how Americans negotiate and renegotiate identity through the prism of popular (and even not so popular) entertainment.
What effect, if any, rising interest in film and television productions about race will have on actual race relations remains to be seen. Still, a closer look at the ratings around the election provide an intriguing window into the fluid, nuanced, and sometimes hilarious ways Americans are seeking to understand race in America, the approaching presidency of Barack Obama, and perhaps, themselves.