Like most parents, I'm always trying to find ways to get my teenage son interested in history, so it was sort of a slam dunk that I'd take him to see "Red Tails," which opened last weekend. A longtime passion project for George Lucas, who bankrolled the $58-million film, it tells the inspiring story of an African-American squadron of World War II flyboys who demonstrated in a time of rigid segregation that black airmen were just as cool and courageous as their white counterparts.
Inspiring, however, does not necessarily mean good. The reviews have been dismal, dinging the film for being clumsy and oversimplified. As the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern put it: "This isn't contemporary entertainment, it's antiquated kitsch." Still, considering Lucas' track record, it's amazing that not one studio showed the slightest interest in backing the project. When Lucas, who declined to speak to me, set up a screening at one studio, none of the top executives even showed up.
"Red Tails" is being released by 20th Century Fox, the studio that released Lucas' "Star Wars" films. The film, which benefited from a big marketing spend — also financed by Lucas — easily bested its pre-weekend estimates, making $19.1 million at the box office.
Seeing the film raised a more troubling question. Hollywood has made a slew of films about the black experience, from "The Help," "Ray" and "The Great Debaters" to "Amistad," "Remember the Titans" and "Malcolm X." But those films have one thing in common — they're all set in the past. Even "Precious," which earned a host of Oscar nominations in 2010, took place in 1987.
"There are too many decision makers in Hollywood today that look at the modern black experience and you can tell it's a big mystery to them," notes John Ridley, who co-wrote the script for "Red Tails."
It's easy enough to understand why — the present is less comfortable, while the past offers the opportunity to show the struggles and hurdles for people of color. But where are the movies that chronicle today's African-American experience? Or for that matter, films that offer any kind of serious look at any people of color, be they Asian, Latino or black?
Hollywood has no problem making African-American comedies, often crammed with cringe-worthy racial stereotypes. We also get an occasional romantic comedy or a hip-hop biopic like "Notorious." But a real movie with real black people? Apparently films such as "She's Gotta Have It," "Boyz N the Hood" and "Soul Food" come along once every generation.
"I just had the exact conversation with a studio executive today," John Singleton said when I called to ask the "Boyz N the Hood" filmmaker why there were so few contemporary stories being made. "Hollywood wants to divorce itself from what's going on in any ethnic culture right now. They're making fantasies — movies about wish fulfillment."
It has also gotten to the point where the world of black filmmakers is almost a separate and not entirely equal universe, often operating far from the commercial mainstream. Ridley told me that even though he'd been working in Hollywood for 15 years, it was clear in his first meeting with Lucas that he had no idea who Ridley was.
Ridley, who's written seven novels, has spent most of the last decade writing for television. He says it's partly because TV is more immediate. "But also, if you're black, it's a fact that you don't get called to do 'Thor' or 'Transformers.' I'm being a little sarcastic, but white people can have the Oscars. I was more excited about Halle Berry getting a Razzie than the Oscar. After all, how many times do we get to make the $100-million crap that everyone else does?"
Ridley isn't knocking the experience with Lucas, who he said was gracious and intelligent. But Lucas' aim for "Red Tails" wasn't especially sophisticated — he saw the story as a black version of the kind of gung-ho war movies Lucas grew up watching. Ridley is fascinated by more complicated characters, which is why he is working on a pair of HBO projects, one about former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, the other a series loosely based on the early career of Mike Tyson.
The harsh reality is that black stories rarely travel anywhere outside of the U.S. We live in an era of cultural specificity. The comedy "Welcome to the Sticks," the biggest hit in French film history, has barely made a dent anywhere else in the world. Zhang Yimou's latest historical epic, "The Flowers of War," is a huge hit in China but hasn't hit pay dirt anywhere else. The only films that transcend all barriers are the ones that rely on easily digestible action and visual effects.
George Lucas may lose millions on "Red Tails," something he can easily afford. But if the film flops, it will be a big setback for the next film aimed at African Americans. It's why black filmmakers need to build their own business models, big or small, so they can tell a story that doesn't need a simplified superhero to find an audience.