Taking a Deeper Look at ‘Red Tails’

Taking a Deeper Look at ‘Red Tails’

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.

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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.

And yes, there are times when the battle doesn’t belong to us. But when it does, we put on the full armor … and yes.

We fight.

We fight.

Facing the Hollywood Giants — and Winning

Facing the Hollywood Giants — and Winning

There was a girl named Alicia who said her dad had abandoned her and her siblings years ago, but he showed up for her brother’s wedding. When there was a break in the festivities, she and her sister took him to see Courageous. They were sitting in the theater watching the film and her dad began to cry. During the film’s climatic church scene, where men are urged to declare their commitment to become better husbands, fathers, and leaders, Alicia’s dad stood up alone in front of the whole theater in response to the film’s virtual altar call. Soon, other men stood up in front of their seats. Alicia and her sister began to cry. That moment, she said, was the beginning of a needed healing process for her entire family.

In Panama, 700 police officers gathered from across their nation to watch Courageous because they had heard so much about it. When they left the theater, they couldn’t stop talking about how they could follow the film’s call to action and sign a resolution to be men of honor. They said they could change Panama if government servants like them would operate in integrity.

There was a soldier who had served in Afghanistan. He’d gotten hooked on a pain medication that caused him and his family to fall quickly into a downward spiral. He watched Courageous then called his wife and said, “I have to do the courageous thing to save my family, so I’m checking myself into rehab. I now have hope.”

A man had blocked out of his mind that he had fathered a child out of wedlock when he was in college. Now decades later, after seeing Courageous, he realized he needed to reconnect with that child. “God wants to turn the hearts of children back to their fathers and fathers back to their children,” he said.

These are four of the over 320,000 Facebook posts written as a result of people, especially fathers, seeing the film Courageous and sharing their life-changing stories. After a successful four-month run in theaters last fall, Courageous was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc last week.

SENDING HOLLYWOOD A MESSAGE: 'Courageous' producer and Sherwood Pictures co-founder Stephen Kendrick.

Stephen Kendrick and his brother Alex, both ministers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, are the filmmakers behind Courageous; the brothers co-wrote the script, Stephen produced, and Alex directed and starred in the film as police officer Adam Mitchell. The Kendricks, whose film company Sherwood Pictures previously produced such features as Facing the Giants and Fireproof, have become the Tyler Perrys of evangelical Christian movies, creating immensely popular films on a relatively small budget.

Courageous, in fact, was more successful than Fireproof in its first weekend, grossing $9 million ($2.2 million more than Fireproof), making it the No. 4 movie the week of its debut, and No. 1 if you take into account that the film opened against movies with three times as many screens as Courageous and budgets 20 times more than its $2 million production cost. The film went on to gross $34.5 million at the box office.

God Opening Doors

Stephen Kendrick can’t help but be pleased with the success of Courageous, but contrary to what some might think, he did not go on a wild spending frenzy or flaunt his success as a sign of his arrival in the big time. Instead, with each success he’s become more humble. Kendrick is quick to assign the credit for Sherwood Pictures’ good fortune to God’s answer to fervent prayer. From their first movie, Flywheel (2003), which was produced with $20,000 and ran successfully for six weeks at a single location in Albany; to 2006’s Facing the Giants, which was made for $100,000 and grossed $10 million; to 2008’s Fireproof — $500,000 budget, $33 million gross; and now Courageous, Stephen says it has been God who has opened doors.

Starting with the backing of their church of the movie ministry, and later the backing of Provident Films and TriStar Pictures, success still means giving back to God through supporting their church, their families, and others, with the aim of bringing attention to God’s message of hope.

Kendrick says their goal is to keep improving, and to a large degree they have made much headway in their efforts to do so. However, the stinging reviews of critics such as Rotten Tomatoes, the L.A. Times, and New York’s Village Voice hangs in the air. Stephen, in his customary humility, addresses the critics of Courageous this way: “People don’t need to be afraid of critics and criticism, because sometimes they are your best friends to help you realize how you can grow and how you can do better. When we have read reviews, whether on Rotten Tomatoes or Christian websites, and have seen consistent trends where different people are noticing the same things, then we know that we have to address those issues.”

At the same time, says Kendrick, some of the reviews were clearly anti-Christian anything, good or bad, or so far in leftfield that they did not bear much thought. However, one of the recurring criticisms of the film, from both secular and Christian reviewers, was that it was overly preachy. Kendrick doesn’t back away from that critique.

AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE: In 'Courageous,' Ken Bevel portrays Nathan Hayes, a dedicated police officer trying to avoid the mistakes his absentee father made.

“Every movie preaches,” he says. “The religion of the world is externalized in their art, you look at James Cameron’s movie Avatar; he’s preaching a message about environmentalism and saving the earth. In our situation, when people know that we are Christians, they automatically are super hypersensitive for any kind of [religious] messages to be in the movie, especially when we have been didactic or use dialogue more than imagery to convey the message.”

The charge that the movie “unabashedly preaches to the choir” is right on target, Kendrick says.

“We do want to preach first to the choir, because the church doesn’t need to tell the world to get their marriages together if we don’t have our marriages together. We don’t apologize for it because we believe that God has led us in that direction. Our number one audience is the church. If you look at the way Jesus taught, he taught parables to the masses and the messages were embedded or hidden in the storyline, and then he taught by preaching, like the Sermon on the Mount, up front and overt to his audience. Our movies have been more like the latter. We’re not against doing the symbolic parable type movies, and if the Lord leads us that way, we’ll do it.”

Aiming for Eternal Fruit

Criticisms notwithstanding, overall audiences viewed Courageous as a life-changing film — not simply one that will prompt an emotional buzz and a superficial tear, but one that truly gives viewers, and especially men, something to think about in their personal lives.

And although Kendrick would love to see Hollywood take note of Sherwood Pictures’ success and begin producing more positive fare, his primary aim is to transform souls.

“Eternal fruit is our ultimate goal,” he says. “We pray for fruit that remains. Movies will come and go. Sending a message to Hollywood, or seeing Hollywood make more redemptive movies, those are nice secondary benefits. But our hope is that people will find a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”

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Can Madea Save Kim Kardashian?

Can Madea Save Kim Kardashian?

CONTROVERSIAL CHOICE: Tyler Perry's decision to cast reality-TV personality Kim Kardashian became even more controversial after the starlet announced she was divorcing Kris Humphries, her husband of 72 days. (Photos: Newscom)

After a week of watching the fervent character assassination of Kim Kardashian in the comments section of his website, Tyler Perry recently turned the tables on his Christian fans asking why the reality star should be excluded from his latest film about faith, forgiveness and the healing power of God.

Though there had been some initial concern over Perry’s casting choice (due largely to Kardashian’s limited acting experience) the outrage over her role grew to epic proportions when it was announced that Kardashian was divorcing husband of 72-days, NBA player Kris Humphries, after a highly publicized and rumored to be profitable wedding. (Kim Kardashian’s mother Kris Jenner recently denied the reality star made a multi-million dollar profit off of the televised nuptials.)

Within days of the divorce news, thousands had signed a petition pleading to have the Kardashian shows removed from the E! Network and disheartened fans of the Madea creator left angry comments expressing their disgust and disappointment over his inclusion of the Keeping Up with the Kardashians star in the film. Currently, more than 100,000 people have signed the petition.

One Perry fan chided, “You now partner yourself with a woman who makes sex videos and takes the holy institution of marriage as a mere “performance” to acquire money and increased publicity. Truly, shame on your sir.” Another questioned Perry’s intentions for using Kim Kardashian, saying, “If you are looking for publicity, [and] using this as a stunt to promote your movie, by using this witch. I have lost what respect I have of you.”

Imploring fans to “hear him out,” Perry is now suggesting that fans consider the value of casting Kardashian. Reflecting on the moment he made the decision, he wrote on his website:

I thought, what better person! She literally has millions of young people following her. I thought and still do think, that it would be very responsible of her to be a part of this film. To have the young people that look up to her, see her in a film that is about, what happens in life when you make the wrong choices. Whether you’re aware of it or not, to be honest with you I wasn’t, millions of young people adore her and are following her every move.

And if not for the children’s sake, Kim Kardashian’s involvement in the The Marriage Counselor might simply be a transformative experience for her own life. Some commenters on Perry’s site are viewing things in an almost evangelistic light, taking a more optimistic defense of the filmmaker’s decision by pointing out that Kardashian’s role in the film could be the initial steps of spiritual healing in her life. “Good for you, Tyler for standing by your decision and not trying to play God,” one fan praised. “Kim has a road to walk with God and I am so thankful that you are not trying to stand in the middle of that. Being in your film will be planting seeds in her life and you will be doing His work!”

I’m not sure if her off-screen antics should now disqualify Kardashian from appearing in the film, but I sure wish Perry had made a stronger choice to begin with. Despite her popularity, perhaps he should have used this role to pump up a hardworking young actress who could use the limelight — maybe Joy Bryant or Tatyana Ali — instead of turning the spotlight on a woman who has more shine than she can sell.

What do you think? Is the questionable morality and limited acting experience of Kim Kardashian grounds for Perry to cut her from the film? Or do you agree that this could be the rich starlet’s chance at redemption?

The Marriage Counselor stars the young powerhouse actress Jurnee Smollet, as well as Vanessa Williams and Brandy Norwood.