Red Tails is Not Proof that Hollywood is Anti-American
Stuck in an airport with my iPad yesterday, I came across this riff by Christian Toto over at Big Government on the success of George Lucas’s Red Tails at the box office:
“Red Tails” producer George Lucas hawked the film as a patriotic ode to our World War II heroes, specifically black pilots who pushed past racism to fight for their country. But patriotism doesn’t sell, right? If it did, Hollywood would be inundating movie theaters with pro-troop films and other tales of American soldiers in heroic action.
“Red Tails” also slices into another depressing Hollywood meme. The film industry doesn’t put out many films with predominantly black casts.
I don’t generally mind too much when the punditry of either side of the fence dips a toe into the overreach wading pool, but I do get annoyed when they make stuff up and do a full reverse on their own core issues to do it.
First of all, Toto creates the straw man that Red Tails was almost not made because the story is patriotic, which in Big Government’s narrative is because Hollywood hates America and therefore American patriotism. He then goes on to say that those in the black community who say it’s hard to get all-black cast films made should shut their whiny traps; Toto points to Red Tail as proof that black actors are making s**t up.
More by luck than anything else, I came across Toto’s argument just two days after my wife and I, watching a few old Daily Show episodes we had missed, saw Jon Stewart’s interview with Lucas. We can’t embed things from Comedy Central, but if you want to see it for yourself it is here. (Fair warning: If you watch this interview, you will really want to see the movie. We had no interest before seeing this; now I can’t wait.) Here’s the thing: Hollywood didn’t initially refuse to bite on Red Tail because it was patriotic. They refused to bite because they felt nervous about spending the kind of money Lucas needed for a movie with an all black cast. Lucas and the studio, on the other hand, are selling the movie based on it being a patriotic story. (Also, this being Lucas, it will surprise no one to learn that he envisions Red Tail as a trilogy with – of course – a prequel.) So it turns out that the reality of Red Tail’s production problems and successes are the exact opposite that Toto gleefully presents.
Bigger than being unbelievably wrong about the specifics, however, is the error Toto makes against conservatism itself.
In Toto’s mind – and, I would argue, in Big Government’s collective hive mind – the entertainment industry should be driven by a quota system:
Here is a movie that about bridesmaids that drink, have premarital sex and curse, despite being female characters. Hollywood therefore needs to make a movie where the main characters are good Christian women who submit to the men in their lives to balance this out. Here’s a movie about how bad black civil rights activists were treated in Mississippi during the Kennedy administration. Hollywood should now be required to make a movie that shows how white people in the deep South during that period loved the black man, and longed for his integration and equality.
What Toto and Big Government fail to understand is that Hollywood doesn’t tell moviegoers what to watch; moviegoers tell Hollywood what kind of movies to make. Ironman 2 was not created to advance some secret pro-cyborg agenda; it was made because Ironman made buckets of money. And it in turn was made because the X-Men and Spiderman franchises before it made even bigger buckets of money. And those franchises were made because the Batman and Superman franchises made buckets of money before them.
Are there problems with a system of green-lighting films in this fashion? Absolutely. For one thing, it creates an atmosphere where there’s always a risk of things becoming stale; creativity can suffer. Also, it inherently leads to popularity over quality. Sure, Batman Begins’ success can net us moviegoers The Dark Knight; but it can also result in the popularity of Earnest Goes to Camp allowing for Ernest Saves Christmas.
This kind of market-driven product should be celebrated by conservatives. The kind of entertainment quota system Big Government aches for isn’t an example of conservatism at its best; it’s an example of liberalism at its worst. But movement conservatism will still cling to this idea that they are owed these movies, because the truth that most people (even conservative red-staters) don’t want to watch the movies Big Government thinks they should watch is harder to swallow. What those movement conservatives that endlessly bitch and moan about Hollywood never seem to realize is that people clamor for good, well-told stories – and those stories by and large are really neither conservative nor liberal.
Toto and other anti-Hollywood movement conservatives should take a long, hard look at what they (mistakenly) view as their own oeuvre and learn from it. I know that their take is that Lord of the Rings was a huge success; and since they believe that its story is conservative then there must be a conspiracy that A Conservative Christmas Carol – which was also conservative – was a flop. But The Lord of the Rings wasn’t successful because it was conservative. It was popular because it was a fabulous story crafted by crackerjack filmmakers. A Conservative Christmas Carol was quite obviously dreck, and consequently no one wanted to pay to see it.
There’s no mystery there; there’s no conspiracy. It’s just the free market at work in the very best sense of that ideal.