'Red Tails': If George Lucas war film flops, are black audiences to blame?

OPINION - 'Red Tails' won't attract audiences because it was hard to finance. The film will have to deliver dramatically or it will have been all for naught...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Red Tails, a biopic about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots, and arguably the most expensive film ever made with a predominately African-American cast, opens this weekend. The film has arrived with enormous hype and has renewed debates about whether ‘black films’ can succeed at the box office. Rightly or wrongly, the financial success, or lack thereof, of Red Tails may be seen as a barometer of black audiences’ buying power. Which begs the question: if Red Tails fails to meet expectations will African-American filmgoers be to blame?

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The film, which was largely financed by legendary Star Wars director and producer George Lucas, boasts a cast of attractive young actors, top-notch production values and an undeniably compelling true story to draw upon as subject matter — the bravery of the first African-American fighter pilots to serve in combat during WWII. Yet if Hollywood history is any indication, the deck is stacked against it.

Black historical films have traditionally been box office poison. Movies based on true stories about the black experience, such as Amistad, Glory and Rosewood have all failed to sell tickets despite good reviews and awards recognition. The usual drumbeat about these films when they under-perform is that black history is a downer; it makes white audiences feel guilty and black audiences depressed, and so no one wants to see it on the big screen.

The one modern film that bucked this trend with flying colors was Spike Lee’s iconic 1992 film Malcolm X. That film made $48 million domestically ($92 million today when adjusted for inflation) and remains one of Lee’s most respected and beloved films. However, Malcolm X benefited from a brilliant marketing campaign (those ‘X’ hats were ubiquitous in ‘92) and a career-best performance by Denzel Washington, a bonafide movie star, in the title role.

With its January release date, its lack of stars that can ‘open’ a film, and a premise with which most youthful moviegoers are unlikely to be acquainted, Red Tails is a much tougher sell. George Lucas has been going on the offense to promote the film, telling how difficult it was getting this film financed and made — despite his track record as a blockbuster filmmaker.

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”[The studios] said [Red Tails is] not green enough,” said Lucas in an interview on The Daily Show. “It’s because it’s an all-black movie. There are no major white roles in it at all. It’s one of the first all-black action pictures ever made.”

Much of the coverage of Red Tails has followed that very line of thinking. Meanwhile, the cast and crew of the film has been working overtime seemingly to create sympathy for a film that has been reportedly two decades in the making. “These are the type of films I try to do,” actor Nate Parker said. “Things that… you can take into our community and effect change in a way that the airmen did.”

The film’s publicity blitz culminated last week with a special White House screening attended by the president, the first lady and several surviving Tuskegee veterans. Still, amidst all the chatter about this unique production, the buzz about the quality of the film has been subdued and the reviews have been tepid at best.

While the film’s aerial sequences, spiced up with state-of-the-art special effects have been praised, most critics have dismissed Red Tails as cheesy and predictable.

“The movie is so desperate to be palatable, to appeal to everybody that it doesn’t taste like anything,” said Wesley Morris, an African-American film critic for The Boston Globe. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips was even less charitable, writing, “Red Tails squanders a great subject, reducing the real-life struggles and fierce heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen to rickety cliché.”Still, the fact that major Hollywood films about black history are regrettably rare is not lost on black audiences or black directors. And there may be a sense of pride, or in some cases guilt, sufficient to motivate black audiences to turn out for the film in big numbers.

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The most successful and prolific (for better or for worse) African-American director working today — Tyler Perry — has not only praised Red Tails, but has also warned that black audiences should support it since films of its kind may soon be “extinct.”

“Please take your kids, you will enjoy it and so will they. There is a lot of action and adventure and also a great history lesson to be learned, ” Perry wrote on his website recently. “George [Lucas], I just want to say, thank you for having the courage to do this,” he added.

At the same time Red Tails is opening in the wake of the box office success of The Help. While that film was bolstered by a popular best selling book, a mixed race cast and a lighter tone, it did not shy away from portraying a very real part of the black experience. Whether or not it did so sufficiently — with enough grit and darkness — has been debated ad nauseum, but the film was a tremendous success critically and commercially.

In the same condescending fashion, in which Hollywood pundits declared the success of Bridesmaids definitive proof that women can carry R-rated comedies, The Help’s popularity may be viewed as the beginning of a ‘black film’ renaissance. However, the bottom line is that popular films, like The Color Purple some 27 years ago, offered audiences entertainment as well as genuine historical context.

Of course, black audiences are no more obligated to support The Help as women are obligated to see Bridesmaids. These films had mass appeal, regardless of race or gender, which explains why they became the phenomena they were.

Red Tails won’t attract audiences because it was hard to finance. The film will have to deliver dramatically or it will have been all for naught. The Tuskegee Airmen’s story has potential for a compelling melodrama, but if this film falls short it will be the fault of the filmmakers and no one else.

Red Tails may become a surprise word-of-mouth hit and recoup its budget, but the odds may be insurmountable for a movie that one critic called “as synthetic and dull as The Phantom Menace.” In the film industry today, where film production and marketing is more expensive than ever, a big budget film lives or dies by its opening weekend. So regardless of its merits, we should know by Monday morning whether Red Tails soared or came crashing down.

Follow Adam Howard on Twitter at @at_howard