By Arturo R. García
I won’t lie – I was skeptical when I first heard George Lucas was appearing on The Daily Show to promote his new Tuskegee Airmen story Red Tails. On the surface, it represented a missed opportunity: the film centers around four black characters, with a cast that includes Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ne-Yo – why weren’t any of them getting some face-time with Jon Stewart?
Lucas’ appearance ended up being a pleasant surprise. But, both he and Stewart left one important question hanging.
In the interview, Lucas reiterated some arguments he made to USA Today last week: Tails, it took 23 years for the film to reach the big screen, was an effort he financed himself – and one he said studios refused to get behind.
“I figured I could get the prints and ads paid for by the studios,” Lucas said, “and that they would release it and I showed it to all of them and they said, ‘No, we don’t know how to market a movie like this. It’s not green enough.’ They only release green movies.”
By “green,” of course, he means money-makers – and in Hollywood parlance, that really means … well, you know. Not Black.
Stewart, unfortunately, dances around the issue. He asks Lucas, “Is it because of the pedigree of it?” and talks about Lucas discussing it in terms of an “economic and political reality” without noting any of the factors that go into forming that reality. While Stewart would be quick to point out that he’s a comedian first and a “newsman” far down the list, it’s a moment that might have benefited from Stephen Colbert’s willingness to push the envelope. (Though Lucas sneaks in a nasty little dig: “It’s not Glory, where you have a lot of white officers run these guys into cannon fodder.”)
To his credit, Lucas admitted to USA Today that his efforts could have an adverse affect 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.”
But Lucas also seems to be challenging – or at the very least, counting on – his well-established fanbase in selling the movie. Instead of distancing Tails from his defining work, Lucas says, “It’s exactly like Star Wars,” in terms of the size of the story he ultimately wants to tell, and later says, “This is as close as you’ll ever get to Episode VII.” Those efforts have carried over into social media; the official Star Wars Twitter account was posting images from the film’s premiere. And that now becomes the key question: will the Lucas fanbase rally around to support him? Or is it more willing to watch aerial dogfights when they’re based on a galaxy far, far away, rather than on a step forward in U.S. military history?