‘Red Tails’: Guilt-Trip Cinema

George Lucas played the race card in an effective marketing campaign, but was it necessary?

Courtesy of Red Tails
Courtesy of Red Tails

If Hollywood executives take away anything from this past weekend’s opening box office numbers for Red Tails, it is this: A lot of black people went to the movies.

Media outlets like Entertainment Weekly are already spinning how George Lucas’ $58 million passion project, based on the true story of the African-American World War II fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, did far better than anyone thought it would.

But don’t believe the hype.

The campaign leading up to the release of Red Tails in 2,512 theaters nationwide was primarily the work of Lucas, the film’s executive producer, who was vocal about the risks he took making the film and the challenges he faced, all because the story and its characters were African American. Lucas played the race card — he played it well — but he is also guilty of overplaying the hand with which the race card was dealt.

Nobody understands the importance of supporting black film more than black people themselves.

I know and bemoan the fact that Tyler Perry and Spike Lee are “all we have,” but I still buy a ticket if one of their films is showing, even if I end up sneaking into another movie. I am a huge fan of Salim and Mara Brock Akil, the husband-and-wife team behind the upcoming film Sparkle. Two films I have yet to see but are one and two on my movie priority list: the Steve McQueen-directed indie film Shame and Pariah by Spike Lee protégée Dee Rees.

My moviegoing habits are so militant, I’m going to see Man on a Ledge not because of the film’s star, Sam Worthington, but because Anthony Mackie is in a supporting role. And doesn’t Denzel also have a new movie coming out called Safe House? It looks like Training Day 2, so count me in for that, too.

Here’s something that may shock George Lucas: Black people love to go see movies.

Black people especially like to see movies directed by one of their own, starring one of their own or telling a story about one of their own. Red Tails‘ $19.1 million opening-weekend receipts attest to this. But black people alone cannot be expected to change the minds of Hollywood executives who think that stories about black people or featuring black people or told by black people are niche.