When the media talk about a blockbuster, we expect to hear about a movie. A very big movie — a picture that was making very big and financially rewarding waves.
Apparently you can talk about a blockbuster even if the film hasn’t been released yet. An article in The Guardian is entitled “The most exciting blockbusters of 2018,” which is strange given that it was published back in December.
The movies the Guardian writer singles out are big, big, big, with action, action, action. Movies with tombs, animated characters, men with X in their names. Plus Mary Poppins, whose calm and discipline would seem to signify the opposite of rampaging robotics.
You’d have a hard time finding a 2018 blockbuster, though, at the Blockbuster video-store chain, once a staple of American mall culture. It’s been a while since Blockbuster ceded its place on the world media stage to Netflix and its kin.
It didn’t entirely disappear. The chain’s trading name was taken over by Dish, to produce Dish Blockbuster, which you won’t find at your mall, either, unless you live in Alaska and a corner of Oregon, where the last (Dish) Blockbusters survive, like an endangered technological species. I like to think that there are Blockbuster fans who make pilgrimages to Alaska just to check out You’ve Got Mail and return it minutes before it’s due.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term blockbuster is first recorded in 1942, and it’s not a reference to big movies, even though Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz had overwhelmed American cinemas only three years earlier.
This was wartime, and a blockbuster was just what it sounds like, “an aerial bomb capable of destroying a whole block of buildings.” A blockbuster was destructive, and in an intentionally urban way.
By 1959 a blockbuster had an additional valence. The unscrupulous speculator who informs a white neighborhood that their new neighbors will be black does so to spark a racialized panic about real-estate values. Property changes hands at below market, and the speculator stands to profit.
Blockbusting achieved its notoriety in the 1960s and into the 1970s. I had forgotten about the term, until it was mentioned in passing in the sociologists Bruce Haynes and Syma Solovitch’s acutely observed Down the Up Staircase: Three Generations of a Harlem Family, which got me thinking about it again.
Are we past all that? An article published in the Fordham Law Review 20 years ago, entitled “A Requiem for Blockbusting: Law, Economics, and Race-Based Real Estate Speculation,” suggests that we are. Or perhaps our problems with racial equality, market value, and real-estate access have since taken a more complex, less transparent route.
So looking beyond the cineplex, the fundamental, if no longer familiar, senses of blockbuster are 1) the aerial destruction of dense urban environments, and 2) predatory real-estate practices that depend upon stoking racial fear among white residents.
Note to Ms. Poppins, Thor, and Various Animated Figures I Can’t Identify: Neither sense of blockbuster is at all what those Hollywood ad campaigns have in mind.
Meanwhile, good luck all you superheroes and supernannies, soon to be on the shelves of those Blockbuster outlets in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Here’s hoping you can still buy microwave popcorn and Raisinets at the cash register.