In a recent USA Today interview preceding the release of his self-financed film Red Tails, George Lucas stated the following regarding the film’s possible impact on black filmmakers:
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.
Red Tails was written by television writer and novelist John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder and directed by well-regard television director Anthony Hemingway. Given Lucas’s backing and the relative success of the filmmakers attached to the project, it seems that Red Tails is poised for box office success.
Nonetheless, Lucas’s concerns certainly are warranted. To date, the blockbuster film mostly has eluded black filmmakers. The largest production budget given to a film directed by a black filmmaker is $120 million to Tim Story for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). However, the numbers drop dramatically for films made by black filmmakers featuring a predominantly black cast with the highest set at $64 million for Keenan Ivory Wayans’s Little Man (2006). Though Lucas touts Tyler Perry, in actuality, Perry’s film budgets have never exceeded $21 million (which he reportedly received for his 2010 film For Colored Girls…).
Of course, large budgets are no indication of quality (and, in many regards, are indications of subsequent lack thereof), and the black independent film scene is thriving. Nonetheless, blockbuster films are integral parts of the Hollywood machine, hallmarks of American culture (for better and for worse), and an increasingly global phenomenon. In Screening Difference, Jaap van Ginneken succinctly summarizes the problematic nature of blockbuster films, particularly as they impact the aforementioned: “On the one hand, we have seen that the vast majority of the movies with the biggest impact are made by a relatively small group of people, namely those at the top of the economic, social, and cultural pyramid in a globalizing world… On the other hand, they also form a kind of prism, a system of cultural lenses that distorts the historical and global reality in a very specific way” (15). In other words, through blockbusters, audiences across the world are subjected to the grand narratives of a incredibly wealthy and privileged 1 percent. Thus, concerns about disuse and exploitation–both of which have been issues for black (and non-white and female, for that matter) filmmakers–persist.
Indeed, much of the distortion of which Ginneken speaks has occurred through some of Lucas’s films (namely the Indiana Jones series). As such, Lucas’s role in Red Tails is worthy of critique (especially since, based on his own comments, he sees the potential for franchising in the story of the Tuskegee Airmen). Nonetheless, nothing speaks to the precariousness of black filmmakers than Lucas’s admitting that a failure of his modestly funded (by Hollywood standards) blockbuster may have a detrimental impact on their future in Hollywood.
Make no mistake: the argument here is not that a successful black blockbuster would somehow improve the lot of black filmmakers, nor is it that a black blockbuster would somehow function better than the normal fare (as is evident by films such as Little Man). However, given the impact of blockbusters and given the unlikelihood of the dismantling of the Hollywood system, we should certainly be concerned about the pronounced lack of access black filmmakers have to blockbuster success. After all, blockbusters–for all their problems–do have the power to be transformative and meaningful.