Five years ago I met an auditioned for one of the biggest managers in Hollywood. Before the audition we talked about the industry as it relates to Black actors and actresses and Hollywood’s production(or lack thereof) of Black films. What he said vastly opened my eyes about Black entertainment. And after hearing George Lucas talk about the struggle to get his new film Red Tails made last night on The Daily Show(watch the interview!) because there wasn’t enough white people in it , it brought back to life for me, that five year old conversation and the agony of knowing that certain perceptions and problems still exist when making Black movies.
During the time I was meeting with the aforementioned manager (who shall remain nameless), it was 2007 and the movie The Great Debaters was on it’s way into theaters on Christmas weekend. For those who don’t recall, The Great Debaters set in 1935, was a film directed by and starring Denzel Washington that was based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College in Texas. He inspires the students to form the school’s first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship. I asked him, “Why won’t studios make more Black films like this to give more Black actors like myself a chance to work in mainstream film?” His answer? “Don’t take this the wrong way, but Black people don’t want to see those kind of movies. The proof is in the ticket sales.”
Now given the dare I say, garbage, that’s typically fed to Black audiences in cinema, this sounded like a great film to me but doesn’t typically sound like something Black people would rush out to go see. Even though it was top billed by two Oscar winning Black actors in Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. I personally enjoyed the film very much and I can admit, it was the first to ever make me cry.
Unfortunately the box office numbers were far from that of any film lead by a certain dress wearing, gun toting, stereotype laden grandmother we’re all familiar with. While Debaters opened with an abysmal 7.2 million dollars it’s first week, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion opened at 35 million the year previous and Tyler Perry’s Meet The Browns opened at 20 Million three months after Debaters.
Both Perry Movies out grossed Debaters 17 week theater run total of 30 million dollars with Family Reunion making 63.2 million in nine weeks and Meet the Browns taking in 41 Million in seven weeks.
Now in the case of this dialogue, this isn’t about whether or not Tyler Perry is a good film maker. This is about what we as a people choose to accept from Hollywood and film studios and how we are perceived as a Black film audience. At the end of the day movie studios want to make money. So if you want to eat at the table of Tyler, they will continue to fill it with food(no matter how bad the food is for you) for you to partake in. But here is my problem with this.
Hollywood doesnt view Black America as an “intellectual film audience.” Take from that what you will, but I’ve talked to enough and know enough people and been around the business long enough to know this is true. To find proof of this in your own life, just recall the last time you heard someone Black use the term “white movie” and more times than not it’s a movie dealing with something similar to a white equivalent of The Great Debaters in substance. But how can we continue to be angry at the white wash of the overwhelming majority films if we don’t go see our own?
Historical and “intellectual films” just don’t seem to be popular among Black audiences and again, I’m not making this up, the numbers speak for themselves. To give you an idea of how little the movie studios think of Black audiences, major studios didn’t even want to take a chance on Tyler’s films and they make astronomical returns on investment, hence his half a billion dollar net worth.
So to hear George Lucas say how hard he had to fight to get a movie made because it has an all Black cast with a budget too high not only pisses me off as a Black lover of film, but it should piss you off as well. Because if Hollywood can tell one of the biggest film makers to ever live “your movie is too Black”, then Hollywood truly has no respect for Black people as movie goers. They’re essentially saying “They only have a palate for malt liquor and McDonald’s and you’re trying to serve them Fillet Mignon and Caviar”.
“It’s because it’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all…I showed it to all of them(movie studios) and they said no. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.” – George Lucas
Red Tails (starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard) is based on the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of pioneering black pilots who fought in the United States’ segregated armed forces during World War II. It’s one of the first all black action movies ever made. The film costed 58 million dollars to make (which far exceeds typical all-black production budgets) and given the typical Black turnout for a movie of this nature (remember Debaters? Historical film?), Lucas feels that he could be damaging Black cinema forever because no one will ever want to take a financial risk like this on a Black film if it fails.
In an interview with USA Today, Lucas said “I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk.” He continued, ”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.”
I’ve seen a lot of “white” movies in my life. Mostly due to the fact that I’m color blind to film as a whole and live in a world of good movie vs. bad movie, instead of Black movie vs. White movie. There are some really amazing films out there that people have not and probably will not ever see for reasons like this. I’ve even recently began to take off my blinders to foreign film and have discovered some really amazing movies that I myself was missing because of an American film bias. Much like how our community has a Black film bias, but only certain Black films. We have to end this. We have to start embracing GOOD movies both Black and “White.”
As long as we continue to ignore any movie that doesn’t look like a Friday or Tyler Perry production, we will continue to be viewed as insignificant to movie studios and continue to be undervalued as an audience. Which means we will continue to be fed cinematic table scraps. This hurts us as a people, as Black actors and actresses, Black directors, writers, and anyone of color working on the creative side of film. Because it’s up to us to tell our story and be seen and heard but we can’t do that if we aren’t even given a seat at the table. Films like The Great Debaters, or most recently films like Pariah and I Will Follow NEED your patronage.
George Lucas, a white man, spent 23 years working on a film to tell the story of Black people’s place in World War II, only to have studios tell him they couldn’t make it because it was too black. I believe that we as a community are more than Big Momma’s House and everything Tyler Perry makes. I think we can change the perception that Black audiences don’t watch intellectual and/or historical films by moving away from our comfort zone and going to see other movies. Unless, the truth is, all we really want as a Black film audience is cinematic malt liquor(a term coined by Toure) and McDonald’s and Black people have no desire but to be entertained instead of educated. A stereotype I still refuse to believe. For now…Follow @Travon