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Yes, Support "Red Tails;" Just Don't Forget Spike Lee, AFFRM & The Black Indie Film Scene

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 18, 2012 at 10:42AM

So here's the billion-dollar question that's been keeping me (and I'm sure several other independent filmmakers) awake at night in recent weeks: how can we replicate the same kind of nationwide enthusiasm for smaller independently financed black films as we've seen lately with the George Lucas-financed & produced Red Tails?
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Spike Red Hook

So here's the billion-dollar question that's been keeping me (and I'm sure several other independent filmmakers) awake at night in recent weeks: how can we replicate the same kind of nationwide enthusiasm for smaller independently financed black films as we've seen lately with the George Lucas-financed & produced Red Tails?

That's been part of the film's (and essentially Lucas') marketing strategy hasn't it? Emphasizing the fact that Lucas financed the $50-something million film all by himself (add another $40-something million for P&A costs), and the relevance of that seemingly altruistic act where black cinema is concerned.

And while I certainly applaud Lucas for investing his own funds into a project that, as he's stated, Hollywood studios weren't interested in financing, thanks to its all-black cast, I should remind everyone that, first, this certainly is something we all were already aware of (Hollywood's bias); and secondly, according to Forbes magazine's annual list of the 400 richest people in the USA, Lucas is ranked #107 as of 2011, with an estimated networth of $3.2 billion!

So, quite frankly, a $50-something million investment in a project really isn't a lot to him. It's certainly a lot to us, the so-called 99%; but it's nothing to him. He probably makes that much in Star Wars royalties every year (the movies, toys, and games; even the name "DROID" is a trademark of LucasFilm, and is licensed to cellphone companies; meaning Lucas likely made a few pennies from that Motorola Droid in your pocket).

You get the point.

I'm certainly not unnappreciative of the act, especially since so few individuals in what we call the film industry (although I think most of us mean the mainstream when use those 2 words) actually invest monetarily in their own work, much less the works of others; I'm just not-so impressed by it either for reasons stated.

But I get it; it's a big-budget mainstream film with an all-black cast that will open on 2500 screens nationwide; how often does that happen? Almost never. The closest we've gotten to similar figures in recent years are with Tyler Perry films. So that alone is something to be excited about. And well, I was...

However, I'm not one of those who subscribes to the belief that Red Tails' success is black cinema's success, and Red Tail's failure means disaster for the future of black cinema. Sorry. That's absolute rubbish, and you should get that out of your heads if you actually believe that to be true.

Lucas is really the face of this film; forget the actors in it; forget the stories of the real men they portray. It's a George Lucas project, and the hope is likely that his name and face will help attract audiences - especially younger white audiences who may have otherwise skipped the film altogether, because it's a "black film."

So, as I see it, if the film opens strong and has legs in successive weeks, it doesn't mean that Hollywood studios will suddenly see the light, and investment in black films will rise. If anything, it'll do more for Lucas than it will for black cinema.

Maybe because I'm one of those who's long given up on looking to Hollywood for the kind of change we often talk about here on S&A, and, as you've noticed, I'm unabashedly biased, in favor of, and far more interested in the men and women toiling away in the black indie filmmaking scene, as I see real change coming from there, not Hollywood; and with good reason. 

As I posted on this site a few days ago, Spike Lee revealed that he financed his latest work Red Hook Summer entirely on his own for the very same reasons that George Lucas has given for his decision to finance Red Tails himself.

Will Spike and Red Hook Summer get as much of a push when the film is released later this year? Will folks send me email after email reminding me of the fact that Spike invested his own money (likely nowhere the amount of money Lucas spent on his) in Red Hook Summer, and why it's so important that we support Red Hook Summer on opening weekend, and what the success or failure of Red Hook Summer might mean for black cinema?

Will my Twitter and Facebook feeds bleed with retweets and shares of every post that encourages audiences to support the film when it opens?

And will audiences rush to theaters helping to solidify box office success, believing in its significance?

I certainly hope so, but that probably won't happen; we've been here before haven't we?

I'd argue that it's actually far more crucial that the black indie film scene receive this same kind of relentless, fervent support, because, as I've said, it is from there (from the so-called 99%) that I believe change has to come, given that Hollywood has already told us repeatedly, over the last century, that it is not very interested in showcasing a fuller, wider variety of our experiences on screen, both the big and the small.

Pioneers of industry like the Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Oscar Micheaux fought this very same battle 100 years ago. So what's really changed since then? And if the answer to that is "not much," then why do we continue to insist that change come from a hegemony that hasn't at all demonstrated much willingness to rethink its credo, as film content has become so ridiculously homogenized in recent years, compared to say 20 years ago. 

But this brings me back to my original question... how can we create a similar kind of nationwide excitement for, as an example, Spike's film when it's released; or all those black films that will debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival over the next week; or the next AFFRM release later this year?

Where was all this fervor for Kinyarwanda and Pariah - both independently financed films (just like Red Tails) that probably wouldn't have been made by any Hollywood studio (just like Red Tails)? 

As I've been saying for sometime now, your support for these independent black filmmakers and films (especially when they're actually quite good, as most of the films we write about here are) is absolutely crucial to the success of black cinema. Revolution often comes from those at the bottom of the pyramid.

So, go ahead and see Red Tails this weekend, whatever your reasons are; I'm certainly not discouraging it. I'm simply asking that you show the same kind of enthusiasm for those black filmmakers laboring away in near-silence, with far less money, name/face recognition, far less marketing power, who are actually producing well-made, important AND entertaining work. They are just as important, if not more-so, to the success of this thing we call "black cinema."

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