In the marketing of the film Red Tails, executive producer, and Jar Jar Binks creator, George Lucas is actually selling us the story of a white man’s attempt to fight production code and liberate African Americans everywhere.
When discussing George Lucas’ new film Red Tails, critics tend to focus on Lucas’ bravery in the adversity of Hollywood’s inherently racist business model. Here’s an excerpt from one such review:
“My newfound respect for George has stemmed from his willingness to do something the majority of Hollywood is completely against—he made a film consisting of an entirely black cast steeped in one of the most prominent African American stories, The Tuskegee Airmen.” -Xavier Burgin
These sorts of reviews are encouraged by the marketing of the film, wherein Lucas goes out of his way to talk about how hard it was to find someone to finance and produce this film. In anticipation of the film’s release, Lucas was on “The Daily Show”. He spends the first half of the interview ranting about the difficulty of making a movie like Red Tails:
“[I] financed it myself and I figured I could get the prints and ads paid for by the studios and they would release it… I showed it to all of them, and they said ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this’ [...] it’s because it’s an all-black movie there’s no major white roles in it at all. It’s one of the first all-black action pictures ever made.”
Aside from the ludicrous claim that this is one of the first all-black action pictures ever made, Lucas makes an apt point; marketing a mainstream film sans white people is a feat. In a recent Cracked.com article entitled “5 Old-Timey Prejudices that Still Show up in Every Movie,” J.F. Sargent points out that “We still don’t care about history if it doesn’t involve white people.” The reasons for this inherent racism are generally linked to the business of Hollywood: a capitalist endeavor whose main goal is to fill as many kidney-shaped pools with gold coins as possible (Scrooge McDuck style).
The idea behind the underlying racism, then, is fiscal—they can’t put enough asses in movie theater seats if the characters don’t maintain the fine balance of white normality (this principle relates to unconventional, or avant garde film plots as well—mainstream films generally don’t take unnecessary risks). But I’m not here to argue the implications of this whitewashing/normalizing of mainstream American cinema, the issue is the story Lucas’ marketing of Red Tails intentionally focuses on.
In the promotion of Red Tails, executive producer, and Jar Jar Binks creator, George Lucas is actually selling us the story of a white man’s attempt to fight production code, and liberate black people everywhere. The way Lucas has marketed the film has some feeling uneasy:
“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.” -Jozen Cummings
Because white audiences don’t care about history if it doesn’t involve white people (The Atticus Finch Effect), Lucas had issues with financing the production of this film. And because a film with few white characters like Red Tails rarely does well in mainstream and international markets, Lucas can foresee the validity of the studio executives’ predictions. So he tries to sell the story of African American soldiers serving our country whilst facing adversity in the form of bigotry in pre-Civil Rights America, with a story that is more palatable for general audiences: the story of one white guy’s struggle to fight against Hollywood’s inherently racist if unspoken code that silences the voices of black people.
So not only does he “play the race card,” he wraps the film in a package that us regular folks will understand. Before we’ve even entered the theater, the story of Red Tails’ production and the hardship faced by Lucas has already slid into our consciousness. Thus wrapped in milky white swaddling clothes, Red Tails becomes more conventionally marketable as a mainstream film (applying the logic of the inherently racist production code Lucas supposedly battled and triumphed over).
We’ve already internalized the story that we need to hear again and again before the film flickers to life on-screen—we can rest assured that the real hero is a white man.