When Marvel Studios released “Black Panther” in February 2018, it marked the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to feature a Black superhero and star a predominantly Black cast.
Its estimated production budget was US$200 million, making it the first Black film – conventionally defined as a film that is directed by a Black director, features a Black cast, and focuses on some aspect of the Black experience – ever to receive that level of financial support.
As a scholar of media and Black popular culture, I was often asked to respond to the resounding success of that first “Black Panther” film, which had shattered expectations of its box office performance.
Would it lead to more big-budget Black films? Was its popularity an indication that the global marketplace – the real source of trepidation about the film’s potential – was finally ready to embrace Black-cast films?
Yet as I review the cinematic landscape between the original and its sequel, I am inclined to restate the answer I gave back in 2018: Assumptions should not be made about the state of Black film based on the success of the “Black Panther” franchise.
Reason for optimism
Prior to its release, the producers of “Black Panther” faced questions about whether there was a market for a Black blockbuster film, even one ensconced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After all, since the Wesley Snipes-led “Blade” trilogy, which came out in the late-1990s and early 2000s, Black superhero films had experienced diminishing returns. There was one notable exception: the commercially successful, though heavily panned “Hancock” (2008), starring Will Smith.
Otherwise, Black superhero films such as “Catwoman” (2004) and “Sleight” (2016) either flopped or had a limited release.
Furthermore, until “Black Panther,” no Black film exceeded a $100 million budget, the average benchmark for modern Hollywood blockbusters.
Nonetheless, despite these early concerns, “Black Panther” earned the highest domestic gross, $700 million, of all films released in 2018, while earning $1.3 billion in worldwide gross, second only to “Avengers: Infinity War.”
“Black Panther” emerged at the tail end of what many industry experts considered to be a surprisingly successful run of Black films, which included the biopic “Hidden Figures” (2016) and the raunchy comedy “Girls Trip” (2017). Despite their modest budgets, they earned over $100 million apiece at the box office – $235 million and $140 million, respectively.
However, both films were mostly reliant on the domestic box office, especially the R-rated “Girls Trip,” which was only released in a handful of foreign markets. Conventional wisdom has long held that Black films will fail abroad. International distributors and studios typically ignore them during the presale process or at film festivals and markets, reasoning that Black films are too culturally specific – not only in terms of their Blackness, but also their Americanness.
What do those Black films released in theaters in the nearly five years between “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” tell us about the former’s impact?
The simple answer is that the original “Black Panther” has had no discernible influence on industry practices whatsoever.
Since 2018, no other Black blockbuster has emerged, save for the sequel itself. Granted, Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s remake of “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018) reportedly cost an estimated $100 million; however, while Black actors portrayed the protagonist and a few other characters, the film features a multicultural ensemble cast – which, as scholars such as Mary Beltran have pointed out, has become the primary strategy for achieving diversity in film.
Even if one were to include “A Wrinkle in Time,” the grand total of Black films with budgets exceeding $100 million is three, with the two “Black Panther” films being the others – all during an era in which there have been hundreds of mainstream films with budgets exceeding $100 million.
Otherwise, most of the Black films released in theaters between 2018 and 2022 typically were low budget by Hollywood standards – $3 million to $20 million in most cases – with only a handful, such as the 2021 Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” costing $50 million to 60 million.
Perhaps the most notable change has been the medium. Many Black films now appear on either cable networks that cater to a Black audience – namely Black Entertainment Television and, more recently, Lifetime – or on streaming services such as Netflix. Tyler Perry, the most popular and prolific Black filmmaker of the modern era, has released his latest films – “A Jazzman’s Blues” (2022), “A Madea Homecoming” (2022) and “A Fall from Grace” (2020) – directly to Netflix.
Furthermore, no other Black film has approached the financial success of “Black Panther.” Granted, several Black films have fared well at the box office, especially relative to their production costs. Foremost among them is Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019), which cost an estimated $20 million, yet earned approximately $256 million worldwide despite its R rating and the fact that it was never released in China.
Whither Black film
Without question, large budgets and commercial success are not the only measures of a film’s value and significance.
As has historically been the case, Black film has managed to do more with less. The critical acclaim afforded to films such as “BlackKlansman” (2018), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2019) and “King Richard” (2021) reflect this fact. All reflect trends in contemporary Black filmmaking – comedies, historical dramas and biopics abound, for instance – and were made for a fraction of the cost of both “Black Panther” films.
In truth, the zeal with which some cast “Black Panther” as a bellwether for Black films is part of continued haranguing over their viability, particularly after the #OscarsSoWhite movement that drew attention to the lack of diversity at the 2016 Academy Awards.
However, its positioning as a Disney property within Marvel’s transmedia storytelling effort makes it so atypical that its success — and that of its sequel — portends little about Black film.
Last year, after nominations were announced for the Academy Awards and all 20 acting nominees were Caucasian in the lead and supporting acting categories, Magazine Editor April Reign (@ReignofApril on Twitter) started the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
The flurry of criticism about the Academy’s whitewashed membership and honors swept social media and water coolers the world over. Not only were the lead and supporting acting nominees all white, but all of the best picture nominees featured a less-than-diverse cast and no women were among the major directing and producing honorees.
A lot has changed since then. This year, there are a record six nominations for actors of color:
Denzel Washington and Ruth Negga are up for leading roles in Fences and Loving while the supporting categories feature Dev Patel for Lion, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris for Moonlight, Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures, and Viola Davis for Fences. The last three films are also best picture nominees and frequent winners this awards season. In the documentary category, films like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and OJ: Made in America have Oscar nods.
There was also history made behind the scenes: Joi McMillon is the first black woman nominated in film editing (Moonlight) and Bradford Young is the first African American nominated in cinematography (Arrival).
Many moviegoers were excited to see these films excel at the box office and obtain acknowledgment from prestigious institutions. Reign tweeted on Jan. 24: “I see y’all and I appreciate the support so much. Things are changing because our voices are strongest together.”
Brittany Hendricks, a post-production coordinator who’s worked primarily in television on shows like CW’s The Messengers and FOX’s PITCH, says her earliest Oscars memory was Halle Berry’s 2002 win for Monster’s Ball — the first time a Black woman received the honor for best actress.
“This year is such a big year for black films [and] movies like Lion are opening the doors of diversity as well,” Hendricks said. “It’s showing young kids that people like them with stories like theirs have a worldwide impact in a way that I didn’t see when I was a kid.”
Many people attribute the nominations to changes within the Academy, thanks to altered membership requirements from its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. The organization is currently 46 percent female and 41 percent minority as opposed to its mostly white male composition just a year ago.
However, it may actually take more time to see whether the membership changes and increased social pressure have actually changed the Oscars, given that all of these films were in production or near completion during last year’s protests.
Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer recently told Entertainment Weekly: “When you know how movies are made, the explosion of films with people of color is not a reaction to #OscarsSoWhite. The tide has changed, but we still have a ways to go, because they still aren’t inclined to greenlight a movie that’s starring a person of color, without a long list of white box-office people.”
A prime example was last year’s Birth of a Nation, a Nat Turner biopic that broke records at the Sundance Film Festival and was early talk for awards season after having barely secured funding. After past sexual assault allegations arose about its writer-director-star Nate Parker, all buzz around the film died, a stark contrast to Casey Affleck, whose film Manchester by the Sea is up for several awards despite his own very recent sexual assault allegations.
So, are the recent nominations somewhat misleading? Last year, only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers, 17 percent of editors, and 5 percent of cinematographers were women based on a recent Celluloid Ceiling study. Despite the influx of minorities this year, they are all African American except for Patel. Although Black activists led the call for change, Reign explicitly used the hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite” because she was appalled by the lack of diversity for all ethnicities.
“One year of films reflecting the Black experience doesn’t make up for 80 yrs of underrepresentation of ALL groups,” she tweeted in January. Spencer seconded this by saying our biggest voice is heard by supporting movies whose casts reflect diversity.
“If I look down a list of characters on a film, and it doesn’t have gay, African-American or Latin characters, I’m probably not going to spend my money on the ticket,” Spencer said. “When we stop supporting things with our dollars that don’t represent all of us, then you’ll see an explosion of diversity.”
Television consistently proves that shows spotlighting artists of color can appeal to the mainstream in large numbers. Empire, whose viewers are mostly Black, has earned Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The most recent Nielsen TV viewership analysis shows that predominantly non-Black audiences watch hit shows like This Is Us, Black-ish, PITCH, How to Get Away with Murder, Atlanta, and Insecure, one of Hendricks’ favorites.
“I’m so incredibly inspired by Issa Rae! She started out with “Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube and now she’s the creator and star of “Insecure” on HBO. I just love how she didn’t wait for someone to give her a platform to tell our stories,” Hendricks said. “She created one of her own until people took notice, and now she’s helping other young storytellers like herself do the same thing.”
It appears that Hollywood may finally be taking notice of something TV networks are taking full advantage of, and the result will hopefully be storylines that are more inclusive. This year’s awards will have more color, and that means a lot to the people watching at home and the filmmakers working in studios. Last year, Will Smith said he was worried about all the kids who might be watching the Oscars and “not see themselves represented there.” One thing’s for certain: That won’t be such an issue on Sunday.
The Oscars will air Sunday, Feb. 26, at 8:30 p.m. EST on ABC.
Who will you be rooting for at the 2017 Academy Awards? Share your thoughts below.
HARRY BELFAFONTE: “They have turned their back on social responsibility,” opined the activist and actor about today’s black celebrities. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikipedia)
Harry Belafonte is a legendary entertainer, known for his iconic performances in films like Carmen Jones, Buck and the Preacher, and Calypso. And who can forget his award-winning “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”? However, in a long and distinguished career, Belafonte’s greatest accomplishments arguably may be his involvement with the civil rights movement.
During the ’50s and ’60s, Belafonte was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest supporters and endorsers. He fully believed in the message and movement that King worked so tirelessly to establish. Belafonte provided financial support for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC), and he also participated in several rallies and protests alongside King. Still a civic-minded crusader today at age 85, he continues to live his life as an outspoken activist for social justice and equality.
Belafonte has never been one to shy away from social commentary or hold his tongue in conversation. He has been known for his honest comments and straightforward critiques about politics, show business, and society.
In an interview last week with the Hollywood Reporter, when asked whether or not he was happy with the images of minorities portrayed in Hollywood, he caused a stir by calling out two famous black celebrities by name. “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities,” Belafonte began. “But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Zand Beyoncé, for example.”
JAY-Z AND BEYONCE: Is it fair to compare the altruism and social involvement of today’s stars to those of the civil rights era? (Photo: Ivan Nikolov/WENN/Newscom)
Belafonte believes that industry heavyweights like Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a social responsibility to be outspoken regarding issues of race, prejudice, and civil injustices, mainly because they have the social influence and public platform to do so. Janelle Harris at Essence echoed those sentiments. “There’s been an ugly dumbing down when it comes to acknowledging and addressing pertinent issues, even having empathy for and interest in what’s impacting our community. It’s an attitude of detachment,” she said.
She added: “I agree with Harry Belafonte. I think young people could be doing more. Twenty, thirty, forty-somethings. It’s not just the celebrities, though they’re certainly part of the vanguard for making philanthropy and activism cool, which is unfortunately necessary for some folks to get involved.”
Jay-Z and Beyoncé are definitely the closest thing the black community has to pop-culture royalty today. The hip-hop power couple topped Forbes list this year as the world’s highest-paid celebrity duo, raking in a staggering $78 million. But are they giving back?
Guardian columnist Tricia Rose wonders as much. She writes, “It is undeniable that today’s top black artists and celebrities have the greatest leverage, power, visibility and global influence of any period. It is also true that few speak openly, regularly and publicly on behalf of social justice. Most remain remarkably quiet about the conditions that the majority of black people face.”
Many celebrities often take on a non-controversial role or use their celebrity indirectly as a fundraising tool, rather than taking an overt stance to engage civically. Rose continues to say that her previous statement is not intended to, “discount their philanthropic efforts,” but to raise awareness. And Belafonte’s lament illuminates a fundamental shift in black popular culture.
“As black artists have gone mainstream, their traditional role has shifted. No longer the presumed cultural voice of the black collective social justice, it is now heavily embedded in mass cultural products controlled by the biggest conglomerates in the world,” says Rose.
FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Belafonte (center) with fellow actors Sidney Poitier (left) and Charlton Heston at the historic civil rights March on Washington, D.C., in 1963.
Rose notes that individuals like Belafonte willfully sacrificed their safety and lives by marching with civil rights protesters under threat of police violence. His commitment and contributions are rare among modern superstars.
She adds: “In the history of black culture popular music and art has played an extraordinary role in keeping the spirit alive under duress, challenging discrimination and writing the soundtrack to freedom movements.” Visionaries like Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nina Simone are a few that Rose believes understood that responsibility and made a conscious effort to better society through both their art and fame.
As for Beyoncé, the singer’s representatives did respond to Belafonte’s charge by citing a litany of the singer’s charitable acts, including funding of inner-city outreaches in her hometown of Houston, as well as donations to hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast and humanitarian campaigns following the Haiti earthquake.
In fairness to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, it is not for any of us to judge how they use their money, nor to pressure them into being more generous than they already are. What’s more, the issues in today’s society are quite different than they were during the civil rights era. So, it might be unfair to impose those kinds of expectations on today’s African American celebrities.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that we do need more influential people with Belafonte’s mindset to help us reenergize the black community. His contributions over the course of his career have changed the world for the better and have proven that entertainers can be important difference makers for change and justice.
ALWAYS THE MAID: Actress Viola Davis won numerous acting honors but also faced criticism for her role as Aibileen Clark in "The Help." (Image: Dreamworks/Touchstone Pictures)
“When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no! Oh come on, why her? Again!’ ” Those opening lines of Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards this past Sunday verbalized my sentiments exactly, and I’m sure the sentiments of many others. Though Streep is an excellent actor, I was disappointed that Viola Davis, the gifted actor who played Aibileen Clark in The Help, wasn’t chosen as this year’s Best Actress by the committee handing out those coveted Oscars.
While I know I wasn’t alone in my disappointment, I’m sure there were also African Americans who were actually relieved that Davis did not win. That’s just how strong the displeasure among many African Americans was regarding Davis’ role as a ’60s-era Jackson, Mississippi-based maid in The Help. Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help was a source of controversy almost from the beginning, with the African American community up in arms about the movie and Ms. Davis’ decision to play a maid. In an impromptu Facebook survey of my friends, I found mostly mixed emotions about The Help. “African American actors, as well as other actors of color must be selective in the roles they choose to play,” said one friend. “They must really know the purpose behind the film, the targeted audience, and avoid stereotypical roles.” Her view seems to represent the opinion of many.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestseller, 'The Help,' features Emma Stone as Skeeter, Octavia Spencer as Minny, and Viola Davis as Aibileen.
The general consensus, as seen in the news media, is that African Americans are weary of seeing Black actors in subservient roles, as well as the lack of quality leading roles and films that offer a broader view of the African American experience. It didn’t matter that Ms. Davis did a superb job in her portrayal of Aibileen, personalizing the character through knowledge of her family’s heritage of domestic workers. Many people simply were ambivalent about the notion of another Black actor playing a stereotype. Ms. Davis, however, saw the importance of her role when she toldFresh Air host Terry Gross, “You’re only reduced to a cliché if you don’t humanize a character. A character can’t be a stereotype based on the character’s occupation.”
Ms. Davis makes a good point, but even she has acknowledged the dearth of quality roles for Black actors. This has led to the enduring perception that the Academy Awards voting committee, which a recent Los Angeles Times report observed is 94 percent White and 77 percent male, is naturally disinterested in seeing non-White actors in substantial leading roles that transcend standard stereotypes.
I confess that I had my own reservations about seeing The Help initially, having grown tired of movies with Black domestic servants raising white people’s children while often neglecting the needs of their own families. I had seen enough of it, and even heard many real-life stories about it from my own family. Many, if not most, of our ancestors in the 1960s and prior — from the North to the South and everywhere in between — cooked, cleaned, sewed, chauffeured, handled the interests of, and had a part in raising the children of white families. Most of us don’t want to be reminded, preferring instead to highlight past and current achievements of many highly accomplished African Americans in our community. So was this movie a proverbial push back in line and one of “knowing one’s place,” as the Old South would remind us? Or could it be a realistic portrayal of a not-so-distant time in American history?
Another issue raised by the film is this: Should Black people continue to be angry about Hollywood’s shortsightedness when it comes to making films that authentically reflect African American life? Or, should we simply be grateful and celebrate whenever African American actors do their jobs well, no matter the roles they’re given to play?
In an appearance on ABC’s The View, Ms. Davis talked about her initial reluctance to take on the role. “You knew there was going to be a backlash from the African American community,” she told Barbara Walters and the other ladies. “It is a story set in 1962 about maids who are not educated, and I thought that people would look at that and they wouldn’t see the work.”
Seeing the work for what it was, I appreciated the film’s artistry. After counting the few films of Davis’ I had seen, I read her filmography of 40 films to date, including titles like Law Abiding Citizen and Antwone Fisher, but also Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail. I wondered about the attention or lack thereof, garnered from Davis’ previous roles, like the characters she played as the BBF (i.e., Black Best Friend) opposite Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love and Diane Lane in Nights in Rodanthe, providing a shoulder to cry on and mother wit, to boot. And let’s not forget Doubt, where Davis earned Oscar and Golden Globe award nominations for Best Supporting Actress. In that film, Davis played opposite Meryl Streep (again!), who was nominated for Best Actress. Surely, we all saw those movies. Didn’t we?
In that Facebook poll I conducted, some of my friends stated that African American directors should correct the problem of limited film choices for Black actors by creating films with great Black characters. While that’s an understandable sentiment, do we need to be reminded that it takes ambitious amounts of funding and the blessing of countless (usually White) Hollywood decision makers to get any type of movie made today? Hollywood finances what the majority of moviegoers will pay for (notwithstanding the bootleg copies of released films that probably sell exponentially above the few actual ticket sales at the box office). If Hollywood won’t fund the films we want to see, we get angry with directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and the Hughes Brothers for neglecting to make them (as if these directors owe us.) How many times have you heard people in our community complain about the latest gangsta film featuring do-wrong black characters? Rarely.
When Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actor awarded the coveted Oscar for her 1939 portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, we applauded even as she poignantly expressed her hope that she would “always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” Was anyone complaining then? Fast forward some 70 years later and many of us are complaining, as Tavis Smiley did on his PBS show, about Davis’ nomination.
During his interview with Davis and her Help costar Octavia Spencer (who went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Smiley remarked: “There’s something that sticks in my craw about celebrating Hattie McDaniel so many years ago for playing a maid … [and] here we are all these years later … and I want you to win … but I’m ambivalent about what you’re winning for.” The actress shot back: “That very mindset … that a lot of African Americans have is absolutely destroying the Black artist.”
As Hollywood continues to finance movies it deems profitable, we may continue to see characters like Aibilene Clark and the young, white, savior-esque character, Skeeter. And know that the majority of the Academy is White and male.
Whether refusing to support Black artists will contribute to their ultimate destruction, as Davis contends, is up for debate. But while you stand your ground waiting for Hollywood to showcase those artists in more desirable roles, think about supporting them in the meantime. Honor their attempts to make strides in a nearly impenetrable industry that still gives crumbs to Black and other minority actors, compared to the whole slices of cake the majority often receives.
There’s been plenty of buzz surrounding Red Tails, the George Lucas blockbuster action picture depicting the daring exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group of World War II, more commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Strictly by the numbers, it’s been considered an initial success, grossing $19 million in a strong opening weekend. Anecdotally, my Facebook and Twitter feed are both testifying to its popularity. People are talking about it.
And if I were strictly a PR flack for Lucasfilm, I’d be focused primarily on trying to find out what people are saying about it.
But as a critical thinker, I have to get beyond the question, “what are people saying?” and get to the bigger question — what should people be saying?
I realize that’s an inherently presumptuous question. People are entitled to their own reactions to any piece of art or commerce. But anytime there is a popular movie or television show that captures the collective attention of a sizable group of people, most of the responses tend to be polarized. Yet, discerning viewers need to be able to give and receive more feedback than just, “it was great!” or “it sucked.”
The truth is, no matter what you thought about the film itself, there are great lessons to be learned in the wake of this Red Tails phenomenon, and we’d all be better off if we could dig deeper and find them.
Lesson one: Before we decide if it’s good or bad, let’s be grateful Red Tails was made.
I know it’s obvious, but really … this can’t be repeated enough: it is amazing that this film ever got made. George Lucas deserves a lot of credit for putting his money on the line to make this film. No disrespect to the well-done mid-’90s HBO version, but Red Tails is the kind of movie that kids and teens might actually want to see, instead of being the kind of movie that they dutifully sit through to please their parents.
When you get right down to it, Black history is American history. But this particular chapter in American history has been so overlooked for so long that it takes a film with a big budget, decent writing, excellent sound design, and other Hollywood perks to get a wider array of people to pay attention and give these heroes their due.
So whether or not Red Tails is a great film is, in my view, mostly irrelevant. It doesn’t need to be great. It just needs to be legit … to have the air and cachet and buzz of a major blockbuster motion picture. And on those grounds, it has succeeded.
Strictly as a piece of WWII-era entertainment, Red Tails is a mixed bag. It’s not as good as, say, last summer’s Captain America. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow more than I liked Red Tails, despite the fact that it flopped pretty badly at the box office.
Which just goes to show you that critics aren’t always a great indicator of what people will flock to.
No, Red Tails isn’t going to set the world on fire … but that’s fine. Neither did Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett. But they’re both historical films that inform our broader American culture about important people and events in our nation’s history.
And by the way, the fact that George Lucas had to put so much of his money into it to make it happen is the main reason why he’s getting all of this love. It’s not because it’s such a great movie, or because Lucas is a such a greatfilmmaker (more on that in a bit).
It’s because it’s such a great thing for the movie to have been made in the first place.
To resurrect a tired-but-appropriate illustration:
Bankrolling a Big-Budget Blockbuster With An Ensemble Cast And Top Rate Special Effects, as well as Bankrolling the Promotion and Distribution For Said Film when the Big Hollywood Studios Wouldn’t Touch It: $60 Million.
Honoring the Story of A Neglected Subset of American Heroes and Inspiring Black Boys In Ways That Other Films Have Never Done Before: Priceless.
Lesson two: Stop giving George Lucas all the credit — or blame.
Because of the cult fandom of Star Wars that played out through the ’80s and ‘90s, George Lucas developed a near mythical persona — that is, until he released the trilogy of Star Wars prequel films, and then he became a rhetorical punching bag for disillusioned fans of the original films.
FROM SKYWALKER TO TUSKEGEE AIRMEN: 'Red Tails' producer George Lucas. (Photo: Nicolas Genin/Wikipedia)
Ever since, George Lucas has had a polarizing effect on people. And depending on whom you talk to, he’s considered either a rarified genius or a no-talent hack.
Here’s what a lot of folks are forgetting, though — George Lucas did not direct Red Tails.
That honor went to Anthony Hemingway, notable for his TV work on HBO’s The Wire and Treme. And so should some of the praise — and the blame — for the way it turned out. Many of the people who automatically take aim at Lucas don’t necessarily understand the role of a producer, and how it differs from that of a director.
It probably hasn’t helped that Lucas has done all of the high-profile press and television appearances by himself. Not only might it have helped to elevate Anthony Hemingway’s profile as a young, up-and-coming African American film director, but Lucas might have more easily avoided flirting with a White savior complex.
Lesson three: It wasn’t just money that turned this idea into reality; it was also passion, humility, and relationship.
Being a historical film, Red Tails is a fun ride, but it doesn’t have too many surprises (SPOILER ALERT: the Germans lost the war.)
The biggest surprise for me about Red Tails was in the credits — that alongside main screenwriter John Ridley was none other than Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks comic strip and animated series.
(*cue the sound of needle scratching record*)
Yes, this is the same Aaron McGruder who, through the voice of his protagonist Huey Freeman, took shots at George Lucas and the Star Wars prequels on a regular basis — especially for the character Jar Jar Binks, who was widely considered to be an annoying galactic caricature of Black stereotypes.
It’s no surprise that he would branch out into feature films, but seriously … raise your hand if you foresaw Aaron McGruder teaming up with the man he so thoroughly and publicly lambasted. (Now put those hands back down, and stop lying.)
The truth is, it would’ve taken a lot of humility for George Lucas to invite Aaron McGruder into the collaborative process, and just as much for McGruder to accept that invitation. But that’s also where the passion part comes into play. Both Lucas and McGruder grew up in awe of the Tuskegee Airmen, and as McGruder explains in this clip, everyone who collaborated on the film had a real desire to honor them as heroes, and tell their story the right way.
Then when you factor in Lucas’ romantic relationship with Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments, and how that might have bolstered his sense of connection to the Black community at large, it’s clear that George Lucas did not see Red Tails as simply another commercial investment or even routine altruism. It was a labor of love with a significant emotional investment.
* * *
This is the point that Christian leaders need to really understand. So much energy is spent in dissecting all of the problems in our country … racism, poverty, political rancor, you name it. As much as we need solid cultural analysis and biblical exegesis regarding these matters, being engaged from a distance will only get us so far. What we need is leaders who can speak to these issues with the conviction and gravitas that can only come from being personally invested.
It’s no surprise, for example, that of all the high-profile White pastors and/or Christian leaders, the one who most recently released a definitive biblical exploration of the race issue in America (Bloodlines, available here as a free download) is John Piper, a man known primarily for his role as author and pastor, but who also cherishes his role as an adoptive father of an African American teenage girl. It’s one thing to pontificate in theory about how Blacks and Whites can and should live in unity. It’s another thing to try to walk that out in your own household, day by day.
And maybe that’s the biggest lesson that Christians can extract from the story of Red Tails — that in desperate times, history celebrates the ones who are willing to forego safety and security in order to bravely take on the task at hand.