Thursday, February 23, 2012

Red Tails and the Lucas Syndrome

There have been many underappreciated films throughout the years. Generally, these are just due to not being able to market them to their potential and no one goes to see them. Occasionally, the reasons are much more insidious.

Red Tails went into development way back in 1988, and the original intended release date was two decades ago. You'd think that when the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones says he wants to make a movie that movie studios would listen, right? Realize, this was before all the crap that has rained down on Lucas' head since the re-release of Star Wars as the Special Edition. However, no one would touch Red Tails. Not a single studio. Why? It was a story about black men with a primary cast made up entirely of black men. Hollywood wouldn't touch it.

They say there are financial reasons.

This may be true. In fact, it probably is true, because Hollywood is all about the money, but it doesn't make it okay. In the end, Lucas financed the movie himself. Marketed the movie himself. He only didn't distribute because Fox, grudgingly, finally agreed to do it. IF Lucas paid the distribution costs, so he paid for that, too. All totaled? Nearly $100 million. But Lucas believed in the worthiness of the movie and was willing to pay the costs even though he knew, he knew, the movie would take a loss. Probably a large loss. I can't help but admire that.

When it came time for Lucas to screen the movie to studio execs, he was snubbed. People literally just didn't show up to the screening. This was in 2011, so a lot of that had to do with the full-on hate that Hollywood and most of the world has going for Lucas, right now, but you can't deny that there is some part of it that's due to the fact that Lucas made a movie about blacks that's full of blacks. An action movie, not a drama. Something that hasn't ever been done before. We'll see if it happens again. As Lucas said in an interview, that's just not right. It's their job to show up for the screening, and these guys, a lot of them, chose to not do their jobs. It was calculated and insulting.

And completely undeserved.

Red Tails is getting bad reviews pretty universally. Before I went to see it, I did, actually, read some reviews, something I almost never do anymore. But, honestly, I was scared it wouldn't be good, so I wanted some information. My favorite (by far) review, started something like this, "George Lucas, destroyer of childhood dreams, has a new movie..." This was a professional reviewer, mind you, someone whose job it is to approach movies as objectively as possible and evaluate them for their individual merit. Maybe that was as objective as the reviewer should be, but, if that was the case, he shouldn't have been reviewing the movie. I'll leave it to your imagination as to what he went on to say about Red Tails, because it's probably worse than anything you'll imagine.

I finally got a chance to go see Red Tails the other night (I really wanted to go see it at Skywalker Ranch, but, despite the fact that they had several screenings of it, they filled up so quickly (with stars and "important" people) that the regular employees at Lucasfilm were never extended an invitation). I won't lie and say that I wasn't apprehensive. I didn't see a single good review for it. I didn't want it to be bad but was scared it would be. My fear was misplaced, Red Tails was spectacular.

Saying it like that, I could just be saying that the visuals were spectacular, and, believe me, they were. Extraordinary. It felt like watching aerial footage from WWII. But in color. Seeing that Lucas immersed himself in WWII dogfight footage when he made A New Hope, this is not surprising. This was not new territory for Lucas. But the rest of the movie is good, too.

I'm not saying it's the best movie ever, but it's solid. And it is certainly better than There Will Be Blood. By a lot. Yet, Blood was a best picture contender? And Red Tails is snubbed. Not just by critics but by everyone that currently has a beef against Lucas for "destroying their childhood dreams." At least, Red Tails is about something! An important something, I think. The movie, of course, is based on the Tuskegee airmen. I don't think there is anyway to stress how important the whole Tuskegee thing is to African Americans. Prior to that, the US military, based on "professional" psychological and medical testing had stated that blacks were both not intelligent enough or physically capable enough to ever be able to fly an aircraft.

The biggest issue with the movie is that Lucas started in the middle. The original treatment was too long for one movie, so Lucas had it expanded into a trilogy. Looking at the story, he felt that part 1 and part 3 were not movies he could make. More drama, less action. At least, he knows his strengths, I guess. The issue is that there really isn't a lot of background information given beyond a quote at the beginning of the movie. It picks up with primary characters, Easy and Lightning, in Italy at the Negro airbase there. If you don't know your history, especially your race history, I could see this being rather confusing. I don't know if it's because I grew up in the south or if it's just that they don't cover this stuff in schools anywhere anymore, but we've had to have many conversations with our children about racism and the history related to it, because they haven't covered it in school. At any rate, a lot of the subtext behind what's going on is left to viewer knowledge. And, honestly, at this point, while we're still dealing with race issues and other hate issues in the US and the world, it should be common knowledge. Too bad it isn't.

The other weakness with the movie is something I don't know if it's a weakness or not. When Ang Lee made his version of the Hulk 10 years ago, there was much derision of Eric Bana's lack of acting ability. I didn't find it to be bad acting. I'm pretty sure the "woodeness" of Banner in Ang Lee's Hulk was a directing decision to show how emotionless Banner kept himself. How in control he had to always be. I've seen Bana in other movies, and his role in Hulk is the only time I've seen him so... flat, so I think it was a concious decision. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard are the "star power" in Red Tails, and both of them are very deliberate, slow speakers in the movie. It's difficult to tell if this was purposeful or not. Both of them felt very flat to me, but it may be that this was an appropriate way to speak for black men in their positions that had to deal with white men. So... maybe, it was actually great acting, but, without knowing, it came off as bad acting on the parts of the two "names" in  the movie.

However, they are both supporting characters, and the leads don't suffer from this issue. Both Easy and Lightning are strong characters and easy to like and engage with. The movie, really, focuses on the relationship between the two men with the war and race issues supporting what's going on. I didn't find any issues with the dialogue, which has been the major criticism of the movie. I think, with the assumption that Lucas was responsible for it. But he didn't write the script or do any of the writing.

To be clear, this is a movie that deserves to be seen. It's good. Good enough that I sat with my hands balled into fists almost throughout the entire movie with the tension of the action. That's not normal for me. But from the opening, and it opens with a combat sequence, I cared about the characters, and I didn't want anything bad to happen to them. No, it's not a "deep" film, but it's not meant to be. It's an action movie. Maybe that's the issue for a lot of people. So far, any movies that have dealt with race issues have all been dramas. All been "deep." As with writing, it keeps "black" movies a sub-genre. Black movies go in their special section just like books by black authors go in their special sections. It's just like sitting on the bus. Or drinking from the water fountain. Racism doesn't end while there are still distinctions, financial or not.


  1. I was aware of the movie but after seeing the trailer I kept thinking, I'm not so sure that will rack up at the box office.

    If your reaction to the movie is similar to what other people feel after seeing it than I'd have to think it'll do pretty well when sold to television. I'm not sure if that movie is even playing here. If it is, it's at an art house somewhere. It was a blip on the radar, one weekend and then it was gone.

    I like that Lucas is making movies he wants to make. Not many people get to do that. More power to him.

  2. We hadn't heard of this, but my son and husband love historical movies of almost any type. I'll have to see if it is 11 year old friendly.

  3. My son wants to see this as he is a huge War movie/history buff. People suck! Thats pretty much all I have to say about that. GREAT post!

  4. Rusty: I think the real measure of success (for any kind of artist) is being able to do what you want to do artistically without having to worry about the financial consequences.

    I had to go to the "dollar" theater to see it. It only lasted 2 weeks in the regular theater. I wanted to go opening weekend, though, just to show my support. Didn't work out, though. Overall, people reacted very positively to it in screenings, but it didn't get any better crowd than Phantom Menace 3D did.

    Sarah: I would say that it is 11-year-old friendly. There is some swearing but nothing excessive.

    Jennifer: People do suck. And it's definitely worth seeing on the big screen. Great aerial duels.

  5. As much as I'm one of those latter day Lucas haters, I do have to say that knowing the backstory of this film's development does make me want to check it out all that much more. My grandfather flew in WW2, and despite being a lifelong racist, said that The Tuskegee airmen were the best flyers in the war.

  6. I haven't seen Red Tails but it isn't because I don't like watching movies with black people. On the contrary, I love racially diverse movies. I just didn't like the subject matter. But maybe I shall change my mind and go see it this weekend if I can find it anywhere. It may be good to broaden my horizons in that matter.

  7. ABftS: My wife's grandfather (who just recently passed away) flew in WWII, also, but in the Pacific. Even got shot down and lost $50K. Now, that's an interesting story.

    I had an uncle on a submarine and another that drove an ambulance (in Europe).

    You should go see it, if you still can.

    Michael: Which subject matter? WWII? Are you saying you don't like WWII movies?

  8. I remember reading about the execs not showing up for the screening and wondering if any of them would get sacked. Silly me.

  9. Yeah, evidently there were no consequences. But, then, Hollywood has always hated Lucas because of how successful he's been. Despite appearances, Star Wars was an independently made movie, not a studio movie, because none of the studios would back it. Like it's Lucas' fault that they all turned it down. Although the Fox logo appears on the movie, really, they weren't much more than a distributor. Like Disney's name appearing on the early Pixar films.

  10. Personally, I think the previews look good and I like the two "names," but I rarely get to see a movie in the theater. Therefore, it has to be a big draw for us to get a babysitter and do the whole rigmarole. I'm sure it'll be different when our littles are bigger. I will end up renting this one, bad reviews or no.

    It's sad, but true, that there are still racial specifications for books and movies. I'd add TV shows to that, too, though now that I don't watch much TV and don't have regular cable, I couldn't list current examples. Maybe it's different now, I don't know. I watch most of my shows on DVD.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  11. Shannon: Yeah, I know what it's like with trying to actually get to the theater. We save most of our movie viewing for the summer for movies that the whole family can go to. Which, of course, has a whole other set of obstacles. Like the cost.

    I have no idea about what's on TV these days, but TV seems to have had more success with being racially diverse than other mediums. You can look all the way back to the 70s to shows like Sanford & Son and The Jeffersons.