Have you gone to seeRed Tails yet? When the biopic about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots opened, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs set the tone for African Americans by tweeting: “It’s important that we all go support Red Tails the movie and go see it this weekend!!!” The movie Red Tails has become a Black cause célèbre. The most expensive film ever made with a predominately African-American cast has renewed debates about whether “Black films” can succeed at movie box
offices. Blacks’ esteem and posture in the marketplace seems at stake based on Red Tails’ financial successes, or lack thereof.
Red Tails, was financed by legendary Star Wars director and producer George Lucas, with a little help from his friends Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. To promote the movie, Lucas makes the case that “the deck is stacked against” movies based on the Black experience. Lucas has been putting forth that Hollywood’s lore is that Black history is a downer and no one wants to see it on the big screen.
Much admiration should go to Lucas for the chutzpah he’s shown in promoting Red Tails. Principal among Lucas’ ploys was telling how difficult it was getting the film financed and made. Lucas says he began developing Red Tails around 1988. But, because of the prejudices of Hollywood, it took him 23 years before he went on his own and spent $58 million to produce and $35 million to distribute the film. The crocodile-tear line Lucas, who has an estimated net-worth of $3.2 billion, is using is that he spent $100 million to bring the film to the world and the world should beat a path to the theaters to see the film and help him recoup his investment.
With Red Tails and his “civil rights” storyline, Lucas gave Black Americans the kind of “respect” we seek; and we intend to pay him back for the gesture. The billion dollar question is: how can Blacksreplicate the same kind of nationwide enthusiasm for films that Blacks produce? Lucas’ claim that Hollywood executives refused to fund films with an all-Black cast has compelled millions of Black Facebook users and tweeters to focus chatter and attention toward supporting the movie. Lucas’ marketing genius made Red Tails a “must see” for Black Americans.
Special screenings of Red Tails were hosted by prominent Blacks across the country. Receptions and screenings were held in Washington by President Obama, by Snoop Dogg in Los Angeles, and in a host of cities by Tuskegee Airmen chapters. Wells Fargo Bank gave Lucas “red carpet treatment” asRed Tails’ “official financial institution sponsor.”
Red Tails has redeeming features and draws on the exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group. It stars Cuba Gooding, Jr. (previously in The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO movie made for television) and Terrence Howard. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black aviators in the U.S. military. They were trained as a segregatedunit at Tuskegee Institute and became one of World War II's most respected fighter squadrons. Despite continuing racism throughout their lives, many became affluent businessmen and community leaders.
Lucas’ investment has as shot of paying off. Red Tails opened in 2,500 theaters, and raked in $19.1 million its opening weekend. Theaters in African-American markets did especially well in top grossing theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Males made up 51 percent of audiences, while 66 percent were over the age of 25. As the film continues to have box office success among African-American audiences, it will not mean that Hollywood studios will suddenly see the light and increase their investments in Black movements and films; if anything, it will do more for Lucas and his iconic stature than it will for Black cinema.
Supporting Black films, art and culture in general, should be a tenet of the African-American community. But, it surely would be a better use of our time and talents to give up looking to Hollywood for our affirmation, images and definition.
(William Reed is president of the Business Exchange Network and available for speaking/seminar projects via the BaileyGroup.org)