Last weekend the day the future of big budget Black filmmaking hangs in the balance. According to George Lucas at least. After spending about 555 million adjusted for inflation dollars to make his 6 installments of Star Wars, Lucas has now vowed to abandon half a billion budgets forever partly because of the racism he encountered making the all Black cast Red Tails, which opens today. Lucas’ very public recounting of what he calls his 25 year struggle to tell the heroic tale of the Tuskeegee Airmen seemed to many, slightly heroic itself. There seems little doubt that Lucas is well intentioned. But his warnings of never being able to crawl out of Hollywood’s basement should we miss the opening weekend of Red Tails also reeks of paternalism.
“I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk ” he said. “I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.
Let us first consider prior big budget black Hollywood films. Before Lucas decided to do all the mainstream press for Red Tails, the film he produced for 58 million dollars, relegating black director Anthony Hemingway and the film’s all black cast to mostly black press, there was Eddie Murphy. At the height of his power, Eddie Murphy produced two big budget films, Coming to America and Harlem Nights. In 1988 Murphy hired white director John Landis, who’d directed him in Trading Places to helm Coming to America. Though the film grossed 350 million dollars, given Hollywood’s inventive accounting, it failed to make a profit. With Harlem Nights Murphy not only directed, but scaled the budget back to a still substantial 30 million and grossed more than 120 million worldwide. But those two big budget films were Murphy’s only. A complete Hollywood insider, the A-list actor found convincing the corporations that fund Hollywood films that there are worldwide audiences willing to see Blacks on screen too exhausting. A decade afterComing to America, Ice Cube parlayed far dimmer star power—-he’d shone in John Singleton’s Boyz In the Hood—-into his own directorial debut with Player’s Club. Cube still makes movies today because Player’s Club only cost 5 million to make and earned nearly five times that. Then there’s Fab 5, where only one of the lead actors is white. The fifth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise mostly stars Tyrese and cost Universal 125 million to make, a few million more than the budget John Singleton was given when he directed 2 Fast 2 Furious. The worldwide receipts for the Furious films are completely healthy by the way, as a global audience is increasingly responsive to films whose cast reflect the world’s majority—-non-white, people of color.
Another time will come to extol the virtues of smaller budget films. Though the day may never come where I get roped into thinking aloud about what a Hollywood with ‘more Tyler Perrys’ would be. Here’s as good as place as any to point out the absence of people of color from Lucas’ fantasy future (James Earl Jones on auto-tunes notwithstanding) and the cringe-inducing “Orientalist” stereotypes that serves as subplot in his Indian Jones adventure. It’s heartening to know Lucas has been working on bringing a black film to the screen before he met his longtime girlfriend Mellody Hobson, President of a Chicago investment firm who manages billions, but he needn’t cast himself as the white man who has to bear the burden of big budget black filmmaking.
By all means, ignore the non-racist bad reviews of Red Tails and support the film. But remember this isn’t even the first dramatic film about the Tuskeegee Airmen. Ignore Lucas’ thin hysteria too, the box office returns of Red Tails will mean little to the future of Black films or their budgets. Hollywood will continue to undervalue us, and not unlike the men of the 332nd Fighter Group, black filmmakers will continue to do the work to lift our stories off the ground...