What Does the Success or Failure of This Film Really Mean?
3:00PM ET January 21st, 2011
Contributor: Todd Williams
A Rocky Williform Company
Todd Williams is Senior Editor for HipHopBlog.com and A Pop Culture Commentator, Music Critic, Hip Hop Historian and Screenwriter. This Op-Ed Piece Does Not Necessarily Reflect the Views of HipHopBlog.com
Another Black film release, another opportunity to examine the state of Black Hollywood and what impact said film will have on Black Hollywood.
There's been much discourse surrounding the film Red Tails over the last several weeks. Much of it rooted in equal parts hyperbole and cynicism, much of it about Hollywood racism, Black apathy and the dubious motivations of a long-time Hollywood heavyweight who suddenly has been decreed a de facto spokesperson for the Black struggle in Tinseltown; early criticisms of the film have been peppered with references to producer George Lucas' efforts to 'guilt' audiences into seeing his film. Lucas made headlines by appearing on "The Daily Show" and discussing the resistance he encountered from Hollywood executives uninterested in helping to produce a film with a large budget and a majority Black cast. Some that have seen the film and were unimpressed were especially vicious in their attacks on Lucas for what they felt was a mediocre 'bone' thrown to Black film audiences, tossed with snide condescension from the quasi-benevolent benefactor of Star Wars fame.
But Lucas' complaints have been volleyed about by several Black filmmakers for decades, as many of his detractors point out. But what's not usually acknowledged, however, is the rather obvious fact that what Lucas says it's true--even if we're less-than-comfortable with him being the one who says it. So if this is indeed a problem that we can all agree on, why can't we agree on how to address it? Or who is best suited to address it?
Why did a White man telling the truth about race, Hollywood and the struggle to see our stories anywhere other than on premium cable or independent film circuits turn everyone into cynical naysayers? And, in the case of this particular battle, is it more important for a big-budget Black film to be successful or good?
Filmmakers like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner will never be mistaken for Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick, but their films have made money. Having a big Black film open well could send a powerful message--moreso, even, than if the film is a cinematic masterpiece.
Let's understand something; Black audiences have proven that they will support Black films. Black romantic comedies, melodramas, indie films that get strong word-of-mouth buzz, and 'hood' comedies have gotten support from audiences for years. The problem, fundamentally, is that studios have not produced enough all-Black action films, period pieces and epics for there to be a fair gauge of Black audience support for such films. But the few times one manages to get greenlit, produced and released, it does matter whether or not audiences care enough to spend money to see it.
And, yes, this dilemma is rooted in Hollywood's inability (or unwillingness) to market predominantly African American films to non-Black audiences--particularly in the overseas market--but that doesn't mean that Black audiences are always turning out in droves for these films, either. Especially in the case of bigger budget films that require a higher box office to be considered successful than a movie that cost less to produce.
Obviously, the ideal end is for Blacks to finance their own studios to tell their own stories. But, we can't be naive enough to think that, even in that ideal scenario, there won't be films that are less-than-stellar. But, realistically, the ultimate goal is not to create a mystical film universe where every Black release is Citizen Kane. The objective is to have so many voices telling so many stories, that no one project would be definitive or viewed as some make-or-break torchbearer for all of Black moviedom.
But it takes a lot longer to get there when films like Miracle At St. Anna and Red Tails bomb at the box office. What possible reason would any film studio--Black, White, Hollywood major or arthouse indie--take the chance of funding an expensive film that audiences have proven time and again that they don't want to see?
How can we blame studios for casting the Lone Black Superstar in blockbusters alongside 'safe' White castmates, as was the case with Eddie Murphy for much of the 1980s and Will Smith for the majority of his career? How can we criticize the lack of an advertising push for challenging, multi-layered films like the captivating Pariah when even accessible popcorn flicks can't put butts in seats?
Blacks can win Oscars till we're blue in the face. It won't mean a thing when it comes to box office.
For all of the cinematic shortcomings of Tyler Perry's filmography, (and there are many), his audience supports his work. Part of the reason is his effective branding, but also its because he gives them the films they have proven (with their wallets) that they want to see. As a result, not only has Tyler Perry Studios been able to churn out a seemingly infinite amount of buppie rom-coms, but similar-themed films like Woman, Thou Art Loosed, Jumping the Broom and more have been released by various other studios in recent years.
The movie Red Tails will not be the end all-be all of African American cinema. What the possible success of this film represents, more than anything, is an opportunity for audiences to let the filmmaking community know that they can support a film that has a significant budget, a wide release, and a cast full of Black people. There have been, and will always be, brilliant black indie and art house films. There will be riveting made-for-television movies with stellar writing and remarkable casts. We've seen those before. But what we see far less of are period pieces and action films with majority Black casts, big budgets and, most importantly, a significant advertising push.
Or we can just sit back, give Tyler Perry 8 or 9 days to write, shoot, edit and release Madea Saves Easter and applaud in unison when it crushes the competition on its opening weekend.
Because that's a victory for Black cinema, too. Right?