Two weeks ago, the thriller No Good Deed surprised the film industry by opening at the top spot in the box office. Most expected it would come and go and be forgotten. A writer at Slate, Aisha Harris, speculated that this automatic dismissal was because the film has two black stars—Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson—who, though well-known, are not in the same league as Will Smith or Denzel Washington (though Elba, a black Brit, achieved considerable fame from his role in The Wire). No Good Deed's black stars fill the film's trailers and posters. There is no getting around them. There are no white actors for a white audience to identify with.
That the movie has nothing to do with race—it's not mentioned once in 84 minutes—is, oddly, another liability. What we see on the screen is nothing but a regular crime thriller: bad guy invading the house of a good woman. Now recall the comedy Bowfinger, which stars Eddie Murphy as a black Hollywood actor looking for a script that will give him a shot at the much-prized golden statue. What does he say to his agent? "I need to play a retarded slave, then I'll get the Oscar." He understands that the industry understands that white Americans will pay handsomely to see a serious film about a black butler in the White House, or two black maids in the civil rights era South. Blacks dealing with race is acceptable and even profitable. But few white Americans, so the thinking goes, want to see black people in roles that are normally performed by whites. That makes no marketing sense.
Yet, No Good Deed is a box-office hit. It's also a very good thriller with a deep and important message (it's anti-suburbs, but I can't explain why, as that would reveal an important plot twist). The film begins with a convicted killer, Colin (Elba), escaping from a van that's transporting him back to prison after a failed meeting with a parole board. Colin flees into the woods and later turns up in Atlanta. He spots his former and very sexy girlfriend (the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo), follows her, breaks into her house, learns that she has been unfaithful during his time in prison, and kills her with his very powerful hands.
Later, while driving through an Atlanta suburb (homes in a dark and endless forest), he loses control of his car and crashes into a tree. Storm clouds rumble over the suburbs. He walks through the driving rain. He comes across a massive house with a long driveway. He knocks on the door; it is opened by an average-looking housewife, Terri (Henson), whose husband, a successful lawyer, is away for the weekend. Colin lies about needing help. Terri, who is lonely and possibly horny, lets him in and helps him. This turns out to be a big mistake. The house is isolated, the storm is getting worse, the killer roams the huge hallways, staircases, and rooms of the McMansion. What does he want? Will he kill the mother and her sleeping children? Who will rescue them from evil?
Aisha Harris believes that the industry missed one important point working in this movie's favor: Idris Elba has achieved serious hunk status in the United States. Women, black or white or whatever, want to see his manly body on the big screen, even if he is a killer—a killer of women. But also behind No Good Deed's success could be the sad fact that there aren't that many great films for adults these days, and No Good Deed is simply filling an often-vacant niche. But enough of this speculating. What I can say for sure is that the movie is a missile aimed at the suburbs. I will write about this at length as soon as everyone has watched what might be the first thriller of the post-car 21st century.