Hollywood is a business that rarely takes financial risks. It’s one of the reasons why some people with nothing more than a reputation for movie excellence stay at the top while other people with actual movie excellence struggle or wind up falling out of the game. Hollywood doesn’t take much in the way of financial risk. It’s one of the reasons Hollywood doesn’t have much of an interest in developing movies featuring circumstances that pertain to the black community. Black movies that don’t feature Tyler Perry in a dress, black movies that don’t have black people in what can be little more than a jigging contest to be some white person’s sidekick, black movies that don’t cater to the black stereotype that shows how miserable it is to be black in America, usually don’t get the green light for development, or are transformed to make the original black hero a white guy.
There is a perception from the powers that be in the movie making industry that movies developed around a black theme don’t do as well as the white themed films. Black films are perceived as not being as successful with their appeal to a limited audience of black people who only make up a fraction of the population. Like a lot of things in America, success does not require any appeal to black people. In fact, leave black people out and the chances for success are amplified. That’s the perception. To support this theory people need to think back to the Vince Vaughn movie Couples Retreat. The poster for the film featured four couples, three white and one black, standing in beach water in some vacation paradise with varying degrees of misery on their faces. When the movie was marketed overseas, the black couple was removed from the poster in an attempt to broaden the movies appeal.
George Lucas, the father of modern day action packed science fiction with his Star Wars anthology, did an interview with John Stewart on the Daily Show. Mr. Lucas wanted to make a movie about the forgotten black heroes of World War II known as the Tuskegee Airmen, but formally known as the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. The Tuskegee Airmen were this country’s very first African American aviators in the United States at a time when blacks were regularly subjected to blatant racism and racial prejudice that was sanctioned by governments at all levels within the United States. Like the rest of America, the military was deeply racially segregated with black people purposely forced to reside on the shitty side of the dividing line. Yet, the Tuskegee Airmen were able to earn their reputation for distinction in service to their country flying their P-51 Mustangs as bomber escorts over Europe.
In the interview, Mr. Lucas said he had to use his own money to finance the development of Red Tails. He actually claimed that major film studios would not back his historical movie because there were no major white roles in it despite the fact that the movie features Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terence Howard. When Mr. Lucas presented the movie to studio reps, they declined citing that they have no experience on how to market a movie like this, meaning void of any white leads. He also said that the studios didn’t believe there was a foreign market for the film and that accounts for three-fifths of their profit. Undaunted, Mr. Lucas said he put nearly a hundred million dollars of his own money into the development of the film and towards its distribution cost. And if the movie does well he’s ready to do a prequel and a sequel.
Despite the financial success of movies with an all black cast or a predominantly black cast like Boomerang, Coming To America, Soul Food, Friday, All About The Benjamins, House Party, The Great Debaters, School Daze, Malcolm X, Ray, Love and Basketball, The Five Heartbeats, and others, Hollywood insists that it’s too risky to put an investment into a black film, even one aimed to tell the historic story of how our black elders and ancestors overcame racism and prejudice to serve this country with distinction at a time when the white majority felt that the only role jobs black people were fit to have were things like cooks, janitors and sharecroppers.
Then again, what’s really changed? The only black movies the racially generic, but predominantly white, majority wants to see are the ones that will have the black characters blending into the background of some white person’s foreground, or the ones that help to reinforce the negative black stereotypes that help to distort the black experience into a cliché, or the types of black movies that try to white wash America’s history of racial prejudice against black people to convince us that it really wasn’t all that bad back in the day. And that’s only if the dominant majority wants to see such a black film. Want to see Martin Lawrence in a dress and fat old lady makeup? Not a problem.
But let somebody with a reputation for producing financially lucrative movies like Star Wars want to make a movie about America’s historic heroes, the Tuskegee Airmen. There isn’t enough money in the world to convince some people to take a risk on something like that. Too often the only black some people want to see is the kind that comes from investing in more orthodox films that feature characters the majority can relate to. Make the mistake of pitching a movie about black people and the rules of what can be done to make a film a success fly right out the window.
Mr. Lucas should be applauded and supported for having the nerve to go it alone. Sure he could’ve done another World War II movie telling the story of some group of generic white American hero pilots that fly through the air without a care for their own safety and a reputation for doing daredevil stunts. It’s only been done about a million times over with actors from John Wayne to Marlon Brando to Jan Michael Vincent to Robert Conrad to Tom Cruise to Clint Eastwood to Jake Lloyd who played ten year old Anakin Skywalker in Mr. Lucas’ Star Was film The Phantom Menace. We can always use another film about the white guy in a cockpit, even if he is only ten years old. But change that character to black and more than likely all you will get is an excuse of why it can’t be done.
Like a lot of black films, like a lot of people who put their reputation on the line and buck trends to give black people and the black experience an opportunity to be heard and seen when other people say no, this movie needs the support of the black community. That should go without saying. This film also deserves the support of everyone that likes to talk about patriotism and sacrificing for life and country. That should also go without saying. The Tuskegee Airmen supported their country with their lives at a time when their country did very little to support them to be treated as equally human. And if Mr. Lucas does well with his gamble we can expect him to produce two more movies to tell part of the black community’s story. And who knows, maybe Hollywood will learn once and for all how to market a black film for the masses.