James McBride

Culture Warrior

A week and a half ago, Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails was released. On the surface, the film breathes Hollywood oxygen through-and-through. It’s a WWII era action film that uses its setting for broad family-friendly cheese-banter and CGI-heavy eye candy rather than an opportunity for a sober interrogation of history. Red Tails looks and feels like any Hollywood film geared toward as mass an audience as possible. But the studio that’s distributing it – 20th Century Fox – didn’t pay a dime to produce it. The reported $58 million cost to make Red Tails came solely out of the pocket of producer George Lucas, who had been attempting to get a film about the Tuskegee Airmen made since the early 1990s. He was continually met with resistance from a studio system that saw anything less than the biggest guaranteed appeal to the largest possible audience as a “risk,” including a heroic true story about African-American airmen. The ideology that closed the doors on George Lucas of all people reflects the same business mentality that inspired Jeffrey Katzenberg’s lengthy warning to other studios in a memo written during the same years that Lucas was first trying to get Red Tails financed.  In the memo, Katzenberg warned studios regarding their practice of exponentially centralizing all their resources in a few very expensive projects, resulting in high risk, little room for experimentation, and an increasing reliance on that coveted monolith known as the “mass audience” (which, to make things even more complicated, now includes […]

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“There becomes this idea, this narrative that says, ‘Well, it’s going to be 13-30-year-old white men which is the target. Because we want to open.’ Because everyone makes their money opening weekend. Well that’s actually not the audience. There is an audience for all of this. We’ve just forgotten it.” That’s George Clooney discussing the condescension inherent in the mindset of some executives in the studio system. His comment comes after a question to newly minted double Oscar nominee Viola Davis (The Help) is asked in the Newsweek Oscar roundtable why this is her first starring role. The answer? “I’m a 46-year-old black woman who really doesn’t look like Halle Berry, and Halle Berry is having a hard time,” said Davis. A clever turn of phrase underlining the reality that there are few roles for women of a certain color and a certain age. It’s certainly a complex issue with any number of historical, social and artistic causes, but the numbers are certainly there.

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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