The idea behind today’s post has been rolling around in my head for the last two weeks. In that time I’ve gone back and forth on actually writing it at least three times. In the end, I’ve decided to fall back on what I always tell my students: There’s no such thing as a bad question, only bad answers. To that end I’ve attempted to ask the best question that I can on this particular issue. I’ll leave answering it to people more qualified to do so.
So here it is: In promoting his film Red Tails did George Lucas invoke the language of race in such a way as to elevate the movie beyond negative criticism?
Scathing reviews of the film, which you can read here and here, would suggest that he hasn’t. Yet I’ve always thought that intentions are just as important as outcomes. Therefore, I will beg a moment’s indulgence to show why I think this is a question that needs to be explored.
One of the most publicized points that Lucas made while on the Red Tails press junket is that Hollywood didn’t want to touch an all black movie. At first, that idea seemed a bit off to me. Tyler Perry’s movies keep getting made. HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen happened in 1995, and it continues to be regarded as a respectful depiction of actual events. Still, I know I’m a bit out of my depth on this subject. So I turned to an expert. I put the question to Jennifer Adese, a critical race theorist who is finishing her PhD at McMaster University.
Lucas might be over selling his point a bit, but he’s more right than he’s wrong when it comes to racial barriers in film production.
Fair enough. Let’s say Lucas is correct; it is hard to sell an all black cast to the big studios.
What about the film’s director, Anthony Hemingway. Film critics have argued that when George Lucas is involved in a production, his invisible hand is always at the tiller regardless of who gets the directing credit. Red Tails has collected similar allegations. Slate.com’s Forrest Wickman had this to say on the subject,
Though [Anthony] Hemingway is credited as the director, the old-fashioned cheese and effects-driven vacuousness on display here are classic George Lucas.
Still, Lucas has tapped an African American director for a movie that tells an African American story. By most measures, that is a very good thing.
Indeed, it is hard to argue that Lucas’ actions concerning the previous two issues are anything but positive. It’s when the discussion turns to what Lucas calls “the black film community” that I start to have a problem. Consider the following statement that Lucas made during a Daily Show interview.
I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk. 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 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’s start with the unmitigated ego that comes with such a broad statement. I can’t think of a time when I have heard somebody say that they are giving up on movies because one director made one bad movie. Many directors have made many bad pictures; despite that, people keep filling seats at theatres and buying DVDs. Or to frame this in something more my bailiwick, if science fiction can survive Battlefield Earth, then I think black film will survive Red Tails.
Now take Lucas’ self-important thoughts on Red Tails’ and add it with everything else that I have mentioned so far. No longer is it just a movie that looks at America’s history of racial segregation in the military – and if the critics are to be believed, it does a very poor job of depicting that reality – it’s a production that is racially polarized before even hitting the screens. Lucas is producing it because racist mainstream production studios refused to make it. The movie stars black actors, with a black director and black writers. And to top it all off, an icon of Hollywood establishment is classifying it as the sort of movie that is going to make or break black film culture. Isn’t that funny; all this time I was under the impression that Spike Lee did a very good job “making” said culture with Malcolm X.
When viewed as a whole, I can’t help but be drawn to the idea that the expected result of Lucas’ promotion for this movie was to somehow raise it above all but the most vapid and genuflecting praise. Within this framework, is asking why this story doesn’t explore the inner conflict of fighting for a country that won’t defend your rights at home, an attack on the viability of black films? Is a white film critic dismissing the movie an act of colonization? If a black film critic does the same thing is it akin to racial treason? Perhaps not in professional circles, but what about when viewed by the general public? If Braveheart was successful in convincing a great many people that William Wallace somehow unified Scotland, is it that much of a conceptual leap to assume that those same people will buy into the history of Red Tails as is? If so, does Lucas’ language of race bulwark this oversimplified vision of the 20th century African American experience?
Given the outpouring of mediocre reviews surrounding this movie, it’s likely that I’m just making mountains out of molehills. But if film is to remain an art form, then it is important that the critical community work to remind artists that their role is not to be right, but to offer interpretations. If George Lucas’ press surrounding Red Tails has proven anything, it’s that he wanted to be both right and righteous in making this movie.