More than 15 years ago, I enthusiastically endured the Friday night multitude in Times Square to experience Jerry Maguire. As a fan of Tom Cruise and writer/director Cameron Crowe, my high expectations were more than met. The film was well written, well-acted, and the laughs came early and often. I was particularly moved by the loving and supportive interplay between Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his wife Marcee (Regina King). Fully realized, multidimensional black characters are so rare, unfortunately, that such portrayals continue to be a welcome surprise. I also enjoyed watching the friendship develop between Rod and Jerry (Tom Cruise). Theirs was a relationship devoid of clichés and stereotypes. Or was it?
The pivotal “Show me the money!” scene dramatizes the differences between Rod and Jerry. As the head of a close-knit family, Rod is shown in the kitchen with his wife, brother and son. He is physically present and emotionally available. Though on the phone discussing business, Rod supervises his son’s behavior and guides him to remove his plate from the table. His family’s needs and wishes are Rod’s top priorities. Jerry, on the other hand, is in his office isolated from others both physically and emotionally. Jerry is concerned only about himself as he desperately struggles to retain his clients after being fired.
On the surface, Rod and Jerry need each other to salvage their respective careers. As always, however, the subtext is way more interesting. As you view the scene, imagine that Rod is in the same room with Jerry and positioned directly behind him. Note Rod’s pelvic thrusts to the rap music and Jerry’s defeated posture. What do you see? Does the scene reflect any racially divisive fears, beliefs and/or stereotypes? How does this affect the scene’s dynamics?
“My girlfriend is black, and I’ve learned a lot about racism including the fact that it hasn’t gone away, especially in American business. But on a social level there’s less prejudice than there was. So I figured, let’s put another hero up there.” – George Lucas
Red Tails, the action drama about Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, opened in theaters nationwide today. George Lucas’s herculean efforts to get the film made – which included personally financing the project to the tune of $93 million – are well documented. Over the past few weeks I have received numerous messages via e-mail, Facebook and radio strongly urging support of this film during its opening weekend. This is supposed to send an unmistakable message to Hollywood power brokers to make more “positive” black films. Really? I think not. Begging through the box office – as proven time and time again – is not an effective way to get more racially balanced, multi-dimensional and realistic images from the film industry. Also, despite the film’s historical significance and Lucas’s good intentions, Red Tails is not worthy of the cause célèbre status that has been bestowed upon it by many in the African American community.
“I’m making it for black teenagers. They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does.” – George Lucas
Of course everyone should know and claim their history, but it is the height of paternalistic arrogance for Lucas to determine what that should be for black teenagers. Red Tails was historically shallow and predictable in a cartoonish way. More attention was given to the action scenes than to story and character development. There was no sense of the black pilots’ familial ties, experiences in America, or expectations and hopes. Their motivations – beyond patriotism – were unclear. Other possible motivating factors, such as making their communities and loved ones proud and/or expanding career options, were not explored. One of the pilots carried a photo of black Jesus which was very progressive for the 1940s. Unfortunately, that pilot crashed and was badly burned. I leave you to interpret that subtext for yourself.
The pervasiveness of racism à la Jim Crow was watered down when dealt with at all. One such scene took place in the segregated officers’ club. The Tuskegee Airmen were invited in by the white officers and treated to drinks after a successful mission. One of the Tuskegee pilots, Smoky (Ne-Yo), chose to share an oft-told, corny joke about color. The gist of the “comic” story was that whites turn various colors depending on their emotions, yet they call black people colored. The white and black officers shared a laugh. Kumbaya! This unrealistic, contrived, feel-good moment glossed over the complexity of racism. During the Jim Crow era, I find it hard to believe that black officers would enter a segregated officers’ club, even if invited. They would create their own gathering space to relax and let loose. If they did take that risk, however, they certainly wouldn’t tell a joke about whites while there. However, in Lucas’s world, all is well over a beer. How does this fanciful nostalgia benefit black teenagers? I have no idea.
“I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions]. I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.” – George Lucas
So now the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks sees himself as the savior of black films? Lucas means well but he just doesn’t get it. Nor do the others who have rallied around Red Tails as if its fate determines the future of black film production. Let’s be clear, if Red Tails nosedives at the box office, it will not be because it has a predominantly black cast or lacked publicity. It will not be because we do not support films with “positive” black images. Nor will it be due to lack of interest in the courageous Tuskegee Airmen. It will be for one reason and one reason only – it is a bad film. Period. I must confess that it has been fun watching Lucas, who has profited greatly through the Hollywood system, recreate himself as an outsider for the purpose of promoting this film.
“Long-term power is more important than short-term money.” – Warrington Hudlin
Once upon a time, we had independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams who made films specifically for black audiences. Hollywood noticed their popularity and made their own, more expensive versions of black films. Black audiences, favoring the splashier productions, abandoned the independent films and have been at Hollywood’s mercy ever since. Hollywood is not changing, but we can by no longer settling for whatever is tossed our way. We can actively seek and support independently produced movies that are entertaining and offer a variety of images and stories.
Brothers and sisters, fret not. Starting next month, all six of the Star Wars movies will be theatrically re-released in 3-D. Whatever fate befalls Red Tails, George Lucas is going to be alright. What about us? When will we finally accept that it is a waste of time to solicit an industry that misrepresents us over and over again? Soon, I hope.