At an event the Congressional Black Caucus put together to honor the Tuskegee Airmen and to promote George Lucas’s new movie about them, Red Tails, the movie’s stars, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr., had some pointed things to say about the way Hollywood approaches black actors and directors. Howard said that Lucas had put together the movie with his own money, and that it would be a critical litmus test for a system that systematically devalues black actors and black stories:
The…problem, and what becomes the undercurrent is that it’s an all-black cast, and the villains are white. Now, Hollywood, for a number of years has maintained the status quo by saying black films do not have an international value. Therefore we’re able to pay black actors less, we can give them less money to make their films…If this film, if George Lucas, who is basically the Parrish of the film industry, as Col. Noel Parrish did for the Tuskeegee Airbase, he put his entire career on the line and stood behind these black pilots, these American pilots. What George Lucas did, he put his entire career on the line…when they wouldn’t distribute it, he put $30 million into distribution. If this film is not successful, it will become a stumbling block for all time where they can say that black films do not have value or merit. It’s important that this film is supported…if George Lucas does not profit from this, then the rest of the industry will see no profit in black people.
And Cuba Gooding, Jr. said that George Lucas had pointed to Tyler Perry as an example of the only way a black director can force Hollywood to listen to him—and even then, Perry faces hurdles to finding advertisers and distributors. And he described his own process of trying to find and cultivate African-American talent:
To strive to promote black independent filmmakers, I go to festivals, I meet them, and then when people offer me projects that don’t have directors, I tell them, what about this guy? [People like director Lee Daniels, with whom Gooding's made several movies], these are the new voices in Hollywood…With Spike Lee, this black director, now that we have him, we don’t have to look anymore. We’ve got one. I’m with CAA, and I tell [Gooding's agent], who’s the next voice? Men and women, let’s get them. Let’s support them in a big studio project.
It was a potent reminder of how high the hurdles for even well-established African-American stars can be. Last week, numbers from the Directors Guild of America revealed that during the last television season, women of color directed just 1 percent of episodes. There remain huge persistent pay gaps between men and women who write for Hollywood, and between white people and people of color. Even hugely bankable stars like Will Smith have been unable to convince Hollywood as a whole that black stars can be consistent box-office draws. I hope Howard is right that huge success for Red Tells could help tear down the barriers that treat black actors, writers, and directors like second-class citizens in Hollywood, though I’m not sure anything will. But I agree with his fears that if the movie tanks, thinks could continue to get worse.