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George Lucas Calls Out Hollywood on Color-Based Business Models

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As an African-American film director and scriptwriter, I have to say I was incredibly moved by George Lucas' public comments on his latest film, Red Tails. Lucas, who basically changed how sci-fi movies are made with his groundbreaking Star Wars saga, and impacted our pop culture in ways few movies have, admitted in an interview on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart that even with his track record he could not get any major studio to back this movie, largely because it featured an all-black cast of heroes. If you haven't seen the interview you should. Because the truth is if these same words came from a black filmmaker, and one not as accomplished, then likely their words would be labeled as whining. So see the words come from Lucas himself.

In a nutshell here is what he said. The movie is about an African-American unit of pilots in World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, and their fight to have the chance to fight for their country and show what they could and did do to help this country remain free, despite they themselves not having full freedoms in what was still a discriminatory society in the U.S. Lucas says he could not get any of the studios to fund the project due to the mostly black cast, so he did it himself. He then went to the studios again to help with getting it out, at least hoping they would pay for the cost of prints and advertising. Once more they said they would not do it. So again, Lucas dug into his own pockets and covered that cost as well. He was finally able to get 20th Century Fox to at least distribute the thing since he paid all the other costs to get it done.

Before some of you get going thinking this is another cry about racism, let me also add that Lucas, at least in this interview, never comes out and blames racism for the studios' group-reluctance to make this movie. He blamed their concept of the economics of making it. In a nutshell, he said their reluctance stemmed from the fact that studios did not believe a movie of this budget with largely nothing but black heroes, without direction of say Steven Spielberg, could make the profit they needed to justify doing it. Lucas, by the way, did not direct this movie, he was the executive producer, for it.

Historically he is right about the fact that typically movies about black heroes usually have White heroes and stars to appeal to white and European audiences. Take Invictus which was kind of about Nelson Mandela. Or was it about the white soccer star who supported Mandela, played by Matt Damon? Glory comes to mind, which was kind of about Denzel Washington's character. Or about the white officer played by Matthew Broderick. And oh yeah, there is The Help, and The Blind Side, though those aren't action movies, but in case someone brings them up I felt the need to mention them, but they weren't really about the blacks, they were more about the white heroes, in both these cases the white women who aided the black or blacks.

My point is similar to Lucas' though. I can't really blame Hollywood or call it racism if they are looking at this as strictly a numbers game, as Hollywood does. I do believe Hollywood would make any kind of movie if they thought they could make lots of money off it.

But here is where my problem arises. Who exactly is the shortsighted group here? Is Hollywood just grossly underestimating white people by simply saying whites just won't go see a movie about black people without some white hero to navigate them through it? Maybe Hollywood is just not giving Whites enough credit. After all blacks, Hispanics and Asians certainly go see movies largely featuring white action heroes. Does Hollywood think we are more enlightened or accepting than whites then?

Or is Hollywood right, and they have the data that shows whites and Europeans, an important market for foreign sales, have proven they have no desire to go see blacks starring as heroes in major action movies, again without a white thrown in the mix?

So either Hollywood is wrong about whites and their openness to heroes of color in movies featuring largely all-black casts, or they are right, and whites really do have a problem accepting such movies. Either way, it is not a pretty picture.

Every time someone of color dares to bring up these kinds of difficulties in getting more movies featuring casts and stories that are largely about people of color, the opposition springs forth right on cue, as I expect here, to say, well it is up to us to get the money to make our movies just like all the other filmmakers do. You get no argument from me on that point. But this essay isn't about that. It is about the other hurdle. Because as you can imagine even if we can come up with the kind of money George Lucas is able to summon, and let's be real, there are very few people who can reach into their pockets for that kind of cash, we still have the problem that if we make a movie featuring minorities, our movies, according to Hollywood number crunchers, can't make the money we need to shoot our blockbusters. Red Tails thankfully did have Lucas to fund it despite what the studios said.

Not all of us want to make comedies or "small" movies, and by no means am I putting down comedies or small budgeted fare, as I myself have, and am, doing both. But we would also like to be able to reach the lofty heights of telling major stories too, and yeah sometimes with largely minority casts, because there are some great stories that aren't getting told. Tyler Perry, like Lucas pointed out himself in the Stewart interview, has done very well for himself making small or modestly budgeted movies. That's his thing and I applaud him for his success. But even with his movies, regardless of what the plot or storyline is, any movie that features black actors in the majority of roles is immediately and unofficially labeled as a "black movie" or "black cinema." Note that there is no such thing as "white cinema." They are just movies. I remember my last film, A Simple Promise, which was a love story, that had nothing to do with race or ethnicity, being referred to as a black movie because it had a largely Black cast. Love stories about Whites are just love stories. Love stories about blacks are black movies, even when they don't touch on race at all.

The real problem with that is that it means our audience is immediately limited, for no other reason than whites, a huge segment obviously of the movie-going public, is expected to write the movie off as a black movie because they see black heroes or stars or predominantly in a cast. Which is what Lucas was talking about when he said the major studios simply accepted that regardless of how good or bad the movie might have been, there was just no way to make the profit needed on a big budget movie since the movie-going public, at least most whites, would likely write it off as a black movie and stay away, even if George Lucas himself was behind it. So imagine what chance most of us black filmmakers have getting backing from the same studios if we wanted to do something as ambitious as this. And by the way I am not missing the fact that Will Smith has starred in major action movies that were blockbusters, like Independence Day. But remember his movies weren't featuring mostly black casts.

So I truly applaud Lucas for having the guts to see this through no matter what, and being willing to risk his own money to do so. That is truly putting your money where your mouth is. I was already a fan of his before but now I am really behind him for his conviction on this. And I say again, I understand the studios' position on this. The numbers I suppose don't lie. If they have data that shows Whites won't go see movies with black heroes not involving White heroes equally or more so, then sure, they have to hedge their bets. It is a business after all. With that being said though, I still have to say, I just don't believe they are giving white audiences enough credit on this. I think with the right marketing, they will do what minorities have been doing for a long time, going out to see a good action movie regardless of who it is about or the color of their skin. Maybe I am wrong though, maybe I am a bit naive on that.

All I know is that there are a lot of important and great stories to be told, about and from a lot of people, of many colors. I know it is on me to do what I have to do to make my movies, that is not anybody else's responsibility. But when they get done, it sure would be nice if the studios or the audiences would try to judge them on the story and plot and quality of the production, not on the skin color of the main characters.

Here is a link to a trailer for the film.