This year’s Academy Awards finalists for Best Motion Picture — The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse — are perhaps the most disparate group of nominees in the 83-year history of the award. The bricolage of George Clooney and Martin Scorcese’s reliably riveting work includes stirring 1960s and 9/11 novels, poetic black and white silence, time-traveling streets of Paris, a unique approach to the baseball diamond and an evocative adaptation of a brilliant World War I play. In this age of bursting the boundaries of cinema, we must publicly float the question, “Where did all of this come from?”
On Feb. 8, 1915, D. W. Griffith premiered his film Birth of a Nation and essentially invented the concept of a feature motion picture. Featuring panoramic long shots, intricately-filmed battle scenes, color-tinting, still-shots, night photography, a cast of hundreds and a musical score in a 190-minute epic that shattered film-length records, Birth of a Nation became the first film screened in the White House.
Despite its bravura, Birth of a Nation is virulently racist. From the opening to the closing credits, Griffith promotes the belief that African Americans are less human than Anglo-Americans and responsible for America’s problems since the moment they were shipped to American soil. Offensive to the point of awe, this propagandizing masterpiece had a firm hand in reviving a racist, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan of three million members. The film’s release spawned riots in Boston and Philadelphia, and the nascent NAACP, founded in 1909, protested premieres of the film in numerous cities, organized protests and a public education campaign and contributed to bans in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Still, in Lafayette, Ind. after seeing the film, a white man murdered a black teenager.
Griffith lays his offensively myopic cards on the table in a disclaimer before the first scene. “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion … We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.” Still, the film recouped a roughly $200,000 production and advertising budget 50-fold, earning more than $10 million in the box office by the close of 1915. Clearly, huge billboards of Klan nightriders caught patrons’ attention. And if I’ve caught yours, YouTube Birth of a Nation and add to its not-quite-Bieber-esque view count of 27,000.
You’d think this year’s nominees — especially The Help, which smashed its $25 million budget with $170 million in domestic gross — would signal the diverse sensitivity to subject matter to rival Griffith’s technical achievements, but the hubbub surrounding George Lucas’ Jan. 20 release of Red Tails suggests quite the opposite.
In a Jan. 9 appearance on The Daily Show, Lucas said that he had trouble getting funding for the film that details the Tuskegee Airmen — black World War II pilots who fought in the U.S.’ segregated forces — because of its black ensemble cast that stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. Despite the feel-good American story and big-name cast, Lucas had trouble finding funding since he first conceived the project 23 years ago “because it’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all … I showed it to [studio executives] and they said no. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.”
“A movie like this” means a retrograde, no-cursing, no-heads-blown-off nod to real heroes with the look and feel of the 1940s. It also means an attempt at one of the first all-black action movies ever made. By comparison, Sylvester Stallone’s 2010 The Expendables — which starred marquee white action stars including Stallone, Jason Statham, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Randy Couture and Steve Austin and featured Jet Li and Terry Crews — left no cliché action sequence unturned and pocketed a cool $275 million worldwide.
To counter skeptics’ anticipation of failure, Lucas too focused his energies on the action-oriented center of his project, as he admitted to New York Times Magazine three days before the premier: “I’m going to have to make this kind of … entertainment movie.” The first Red Tails scripts, which Lucas began commissioning in the early 1990s, suggested a three-part epic beginning in segregated Alabama, graduating to airborne dogfights over Europe and resolving in the cruel irony of the war heroes’ return home to a country still entrenched in racial quagmire. That studio execs didn’t trust the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones to recreate a nonfictional universe with the captivating innovation of his former work must say something about the subject matter more than the filmmaker.
Yet, because of the drawn-out, 23 year process, Lucas film fell short of its ambitions. Critics see the film as a missed opportunity, a half-good movie with worthwhile action sequences and a script that falls short. Thus far, Red Tails has recouped $42 million of Lucas’ $58 million budget, a figure that far exceeds typical all-black productions.
Even if the film has fallen short, what does that say about us, the audience — that we care more than six times more about Stallone’s contrived action film than a poignant American war story? Perhaps the Academy has evolved, but studio executives realize a painful truth that harkens back to the taboo surrounding Griffith’s 1915 release: Moviegoers want a release from society, not a charge of responsibility. Simply put, racially-charged movies are risky business. If you believe otherwise, make it your business to see Red Tails.
Wary of the weight his film carries, Lucas laments, “I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk … if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while.” Even though it might lighten our collectively frugal wallet, something tells me we educated young people are charged with bucking that trend.
Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scrambled Eggs appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.