Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Red Tails, Black in Hollywood, What's Next

After heavy promotion and a well constructed sob story for George Lucas's Tuskeege Airmen opus Red Tails, the film took the number two spot at the weekend box office. Raking in $19.1 million in its opening weekend. The Black action history flick was second only to Underworld Awakening, the vampire thriller starring Kate Beckinsale. This isn't the first time a predominantly Black film has finished its first weekend in the top three spot. But it is the first time that it's happened with a White Executive Producer begging people -- Black and White alike -- to go out and see a film or else we never get another colored picture ever again.

The doom and gloom rhetoric surrounding the plight of Black actors, actresses, directors, writers, producers and any other positions in the upper echelons of the Hollywood machine have long been highlighted in the Black community: radio shows, websites, blogs like the one you're reading. But while the problem has been highlighted the attitude has always been, "We'll show Hollywood we can be a box office smash too. We'll show Hollywood our stories are worth telling."

Now we have Hollywood's golden boy blaring the same tune on his trumpet for cinematic justice. But the question remains.... Will it make even the slightest bit of difference?

George Lucas says he's been trying to make Red Tails for the last 20 years ago. That means his mission to bring this story to life began in 1992. In 1992 Spike Lee brought a piece of African-American history to life on the big screen, X; the movie adaptation of the Autobiography of Malcolm X. X came out in '92, the year before another piece of all-American history was brought to life via movie magic; Oliver Stone's JFK.

When I was in college Spike Lee came to my school and gave a lecture. He covered the classics, Do the Right Thing and School Daze and talked about his searing documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, painting a picture of New Orleans in the days, weeks and months after Katrina. But he also talked about X, specifically what it took to get a movie like that made. His answer in short, rich friends.

In the credits for X, there is a special thanks to Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Janet Jackson, Prince and Peggy Cooper Cafritz -- founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. While on the campus of FSU Spike told us all in the audience the studio pulled his funding and to finish the film he had to reach out to friends with deep pockets and bigger hearts. He told us he asked Magic Johnson for a donation after he'd already asked Michael Jordan so Magic would give more than Jordan. Spike also recounted how studio executives wanted to place X under strict time constraints. They told him the movie should be no longer than two hours. Spike told us he called Oliver Stone to inquire about JFK. Stone told Spike JFK was running three hours. As we all know X runs a good three and a half hours.

These were the issues and hurdles a critically acclaimed, albeit controversial, director had to deal with 20 years ago to get a period piece based on African-American history made. Here we are 20 years later with an even more critically acclaimed director, with no major controversy to his name or works (Jar Jar Binks aside) having to finance his own film because in 20 years there is still no audience for it.

These are the lines fed to apparently all directors Black and White on why Black films can not and do not succeed. Unless of course your name is Tyler Perry.

To drum up support for Red Tails, Perry penned a letter on his website discussing the difficulties he still faces when trying to make movies.

He wrote:

"Unfortunately, movies starring an all African American cast are on the verge of becoming extinct. THAT'S RIGHT, EXTINCT! Ask any executive at a Hollywood Studio why, and most of them will tell you one of two things. The first thing they'll say is that DVD sales have become very soft, so it's hard for a movie with an all black cast to break-even. Secondly they'll say, most movies are now dependent on foreign sales to be successful and most "black" movies don't sell well in foreign markets. So what that means is you will begin to see less and less films that star an all black cast. Isn't that sad in a 2012 America? Somewhere along the way we still haven't realized that we are more alike then not.

I must tell you that I have been very fortunate to work with a studio that sees the value in my type of storytelling and filmmaking. As well as having you, an audience of all races of people, who have stood by me arm and arm. It has helped me navigate through some pretty rough waters."

Whether you love Tyler Perry and his brand of work, hate him like our Grand_Central, or are indifferent like I am, the one thing you can't deny is the man's continued to push to have Black stories told. Call it coonery, buffonery, samboing whatever you like but when you can release a movie featuring an entire Black cast year after year, sometimes two and three times a year without a studio head giving you too much of a second thought it goes to show there is an audience for a film filled with color. Furthermore, Perry doesn't just have anybody in his films, he has heavyweight actors and actresses bringing his sometimes bland and melodramatic scripts to life: Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Divine, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Lynn Whitfield, Blair Underwood. The list goes on. (Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard in Tyler Perry's The Family that Preys)

Now many, Grand_Central this is for you, believe Tyler Perry exemplifies all that is wrong with the Black community, Black media and the image of ourselves we see projected on to small and silver screens alike. Personal feelings about his work aside, if you look at his business model it is undeniable. Perry's work has tapped the bible belt. His movie premieres are events for southern church groups, and his prevalence has given rise and credence to other filmmakers wanting to tell other stories of the African-American Americana.

Monday, the trailer for T.D. Jakes' newest film, Woman Thou Art Loosed: On The Seventh Day was released. Comments I read on one blog derided the trailer for over acting (how can you tell in a minute and 21 seconds) and for having the hackneyed come to Jesus moment. Mind you Bishop T.D. Jakes is the same man behind last summer's Jumping the Broom that had bourgie Black folks everywhere headed to theaters to see a film they hoped would put the professional Black woman without a man or marriage meme to bed. While there was no mountain moving to shatter the five-year-old trope through film, the movie came in third place in it's opening weekend against Thor and Fast Five making $15.2 million and besting Something Borrowed starring Kate Hudson. Since its May 6, 2011 release Jumping the Broom has made more than $37 million in the United States.

The year before that the rom-com Just Wright, starring Queen Latifah and Common debuted in fourth place on it's opening weekend with a cool $8.2 million. Since its 2010 release the movie has grossed more than $21 million in the U.S.

To say there isn't an audience for Black films with Black casts is a lie. To say Black films don't command an audience is a lie.

Just as this year's Black film buzz has been all about Red Tails and Pariah before it and Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer to come, in year's past there has been the it Black film for folks to go see.

But that's the problem there is only one or two "it" films with a predominantly if not exclusively Black cast for the entire Black-American population to go see. We may be a minority but we are not... I repeat we are not a monolith.

Yet we have to beg for Precious when The Blind Side is greenlighted and the stories are nearly identical only the players different. We have to beg for the shelved 35 and Ticking when identical films No Strings Attached, Friends With Benefits, Bridesmaids and Something Borrowed are released en masse.

Last year's much ballied about film, The Help, debuted at number 2 it's opening weekend making $26 million. Since it's August release the film has grossed more than $169 million domestically and $35 million in foreign markets. The film told through the voice of "Skeeter" Emma Stone's character, is really about the work lives and sister-hood of Abileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) both of whom were nominated today for Academy Awards and Spencer who recently won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress.

The Help appealed to a diverse audience, probably because of its controversial subject matter, but audiences turned out to see a group of domestic Black women protest their station in life through simple literacy.

The problem with getting films telling Black stories green-lighted in Hollywood is that they are marketed as Black films. Just like when you go into bookstores (those that are left) and you see the sign that says African-American literature. We are being distinguished in a sub-category for doing the same thing our less colorful counterparts do. We are being distinguished in a sub-category for telling the same stories our less colorful counterparts do.

The problem with the way forward in Hollywood following the firestorm created by the release of Red Tails is to not use a sob story to promote a movie or pitch it in the frame of a woe is me pity party. Instead sell it as an American story that has cross cultural appeal even if the cast looks nothing like you. Cosby anyone.

I understand this will be much harder to do than it is to type but it is the only way to conclusively end the debate on Black movies, Black literature, and Black music and just make it all American. If we are to be a melting pot, the tossed salad body of assimilated tan people what we create and put out into the media dialogue should reflect that.

Wishful thinking yes. But it is the only way to push past begging and fighting for films to be made and released and just have them at the ready for all to watch.

1. Did you see Red Tails? What did you think?
2. Do you think it's first weekend showing will show Hollywood Black films are viable period not subtext necessary.
3. Can new Black filmmakers break into Hollywood without dumbing down their content or making it overtly religious?
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