Lucas recounts battle to get all-black war movie airborne
Given the blockbuster status of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and almost every prequel and sequel in his extensive back list, George Lucas blithely presumed that Hollywood's major studios would be falling over each other to produce his latest action movie.
Instead, he claims to have struggled for more than 20 years to get the Second World War film Red Tails financed and made. The reason? Because, in his words, "it's an all-black movie" with "no major white roles in it at all".
That revelation, made in a series of interviews this week, has thrown Lucas to the centre of a debate which is perennially troubling for the largely liberal, but almost entirely Caucasian elite which sits in the film industry's boardrooms.
He first conceived of Red Tails, which tells the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated squadron of African-American fighter pilots, in the 1980s. But studios failed to invest in it, he claims, because they refused to believe they could successfully market an action movie about black people. In the end, Lucas was forced to spend $58m (£38m) of his own money to underwrite the picture, which features the British actor David Oyelowo among its stars. When it failed to find a willing distributor, he had to stump up another $35m.
"It was a reasonably expensive movie. Normally black movies... they're very low budget," Lucas said, in an interview with Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show. "They do well, but they do a certain amount of money and they know what that is. And this cost more than what those movies make."
When he pitched his film to studios, Lucas claims they said: "No, we don't know how to market a movie like this."
The timing of his comments, which come a week before Red Tails arrives in US cinemas, has led some to suggest that he is cynically attempting to stir up controversy to put bums on seats. Last week, the critics note, he told USA Today that if the movie fails to make money it will, "put the black film community at risk."
But others say he has a point. In the past, Hollywood has adopted a notably cavalier attitude when it comes to representing ethnic minorities in war movies. Clint Eastwood's Second World War films Flags of our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima controversially failed to include a single black soldier.
Meanwhile, not a single black person was shortlisted for an Oscar last year. And though this year's awards season contenders include The Help, which focuses on the Civil Rights struggle, Lucas argued in yesterday's Variety: "The Help is not a black film. There's a big difference between a movie with black actors and a black film."
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