I was a Star Wars kid. I was almost six years old when the first movie hit theaters and it blew my mind, as it did the minds of all my friends. We all wanted to grow up either to be Darth Vader or Obiwan Kenobi, depending on your particular bent.
Not for nothing, but I did tear up when Vader finally died. Kenobi just wasn’t as cool.
The Star Wars saga helped define pop culture in many ways throughout my childhood. And so George Lucas, creator of the epic films, was the cinematic god of our youth. And if anyone has juice in Hollywood to get things done, it’s Lucas, who owns Lucasfilms (his own production company). So if there’s a film he wants to get made, it’s going to happen.
Unless the stars of the movie are black, that is.
In a recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (see clip below), Lucas discusses the process of getting his most recent picture, Red Tails, finally from concept to screen. Surprisingly the big-budget World War II film about the famous Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first all-African-American fighter pilot squadron in American military history. Though celebrated by many as the “True Heroes of World War II” to quote Lucas, their story has never been the central focus of a single one of the combat films made since the forties.
In fact, despite, Lucas’ passion for the project, it took him twenty-three years to get the movie made and distributed. As he notes in the clip above, he even funded the movie himself, presenting a virtually finished product to studios with the hope that they would take the relatively minor risk of promoting and distributing it. But for years everyone hedged.
It wasn’t that the film was bad. It wasn’t that the studio execs had some inherent resentment toward African-Americans, or that they felt the story wasn’t worth telling. It all came down to economics.
Lucas himself noted that this was perhaps the first major “all black action film” ever made. He pointed out that few with African-Americans playing all major ever made it to wide distribution, save for the frugally produced work of Tyler Perry. But even his films are relegated to second-tier distribution for the most part.
When it came down to making a decision, it was pure economics. Execs looked at the cost of the movie, which exceeded the grossing capacity of films like those produced by Tyler Perry. They also recognized that, because the film was focused on a uniquely North American narrative, it would have limited international market appeal. So never mind if the story needed to be told; they didn’t want to take the risk.
As an aside, I’ll note that my wife, Amy, did mention the success of “The Color Purple,” both commercially and during awards season. Yes, the film grossed over $140 million back in the 1980s, and yes, it was nominated for eleven Oscars. However, it wasn’t an action movie, and if you’ll recall the film’s director was Steven Spielberg – a white guy.
And lest you even dare to mention “The Help,” I have two words for you: “white hero.”
I know I used the provocative “R” word in the title of this post, which was intentional. As I’ve tried to clarify throughout, I am not suggesting that all of Hollywood is racist, or that all of those in positions of power have a grudge against black people. However, the whole issue does point to a systemic, institutionalized racism that has a similar oppressive result as if there was an individual willfully oppressing the humanity and rights of an entire group of people.
The reason I point this out, particularly on a blog primarily focused on faith and religion, is because I’ve struggled to illustrate institutionalized racism within organized religion and our educational systems in the past. It’s hard to do, especially without individuals feeling particularly indicted, so when an example as clear as this comes along it’s hard to ignore.
Once again, the white guy has to push the film through to fruition. Like Spielberg, George Lucas has made this project a labor of love: one that likely will never yield the return that will make it look like a wise business move. But he’s willing to take that chance so that the story can be told. And just maybe the film actually will do well enough to get the attention of the bean counters in Hollywood.
But that ultimately boils down to who goes to see it.
Red Tails hits theaters on January 20th, 2012 and stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. For more about the film, visit www.redtails2012.com.