At the January 20 burial at Arlington National Ceremony of Lt. Colonel Luke Weathers, one of the last surviving Red Tails—he died October 15, but his funeral was delayed, significantly, until the release of the film—his son gave voice to this myth:
"Historians may not say it, but if it weren't for the success of the Tuskegee airmen, we wouldn't have won World War II," Luke Weathers III, Weathers' son said after the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery today. "I mean that's just a fact. You're not going to find that in the history books.”
Military salutes member of historic fighter pilot group 'Red Tails', by Jennifer Griffin, Foxnews.com, January 20, 2011Of course, it’s not “just a fact”. It could hardly be further from “a fact”. The Tuskegee Airmen entered the war when the German Luftwaffe had lost its best pilots, largely on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union, and the skies of Western Europe were literally devoid of Axis opposition; the unit’s record was honorable but not particularly distinguished.
What is a fact is this: movies by black actor-writer-director-producer Tyler Perry open far better than Red Tails.
After Red Tails’ first weekend, industry sources were still trying to put a brave face on things:
Red Tails wasn’t the return to box office royalty for George Lucas, who served only as executive producer here, but the $19.1m it made this weekend was anything but disappointing. Quite the contrary. It’s certainly a better opening than Lucas’ past side project that featured neither giant spaceships nor Harrison Ford in a fedora. Radioland Murders opened in 1994 to $835,570, a number that had some believing George Lucas would give up the film making game completely. Red Tails’ reported budget is $58m, not an impossible number to overcome and get into the black. When you consider all aspects, though – marketing costs, splitting the gross with theaters, and foreign markets—you see the film has a lot of work ahead of it. Not an impossibility, but Ne-Yo [actor in Red Tails] probably shouldn’t hold out hope for fast-tracked sequel. [Box Office: ‘Underworld’ Kicks Some ‘Red Tails’ For a Box Office Win, By Jeremy Kirk, filmschoolrejects.com, January 22, 2012]Of course, that $58 million didn’t count the $35 million dedicated to distribution and marketing. Still, some were even more optimistic: Take That, Critics! “Red Tails” Is Box Office Hit!, NewsOne.com, January 23, 2012.
But Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family opened to $25 million in April of 2011; and Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married opened to $29 million in April of 2010; and Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail opened to $41 million in 2009. See the numbers on BoxOfficeMojo.com.
“Hollywood studios were stunned by how well this George Lucas banner film Red Tails did in matinees Friday. Until they discovered that the Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox marketing inside the African-American community resulted in busloads of midday filmgoers for the Tuskegee Airmen’s true story. ”[Nikki Finke, writing on Deadline.com, January 22, 2012]Nor do Black people launch a Twitter campaign(#supportRedTails) urging seeing Tyler movies the opening week.
Nor are there Cassandra-like predictions from George Lucas that no movie with a majority Black cast will be made if this film fails. [George Lucas: Hollywood Won't Finance an 'Expensive Movie' With an All-Black Cast (Video)]
But Red Tails nosedive became unmistakable this weekend according to BoxofficeMojo.com:
Red Tails also crashed hard, spiraling 53 percent to an estimated $2.8 million. The George Lucas-produced story of the Tuskegee Airmen had made $26.2 million. [Friday Report, by Ray Subers, January 28, 2012]In week two of being in theaters, Red Tails managed (projected) only $7.9 million in gate receipts. That’s a drop of nearly 60 percent, showing that Red Tails has no long-term audience whatsoever. Black movies don’t play well internationally. Any hope of Red Tails turning a profit appears to be grounded.
Basically, only Black people go to see Tyler Perry films. (The New York Times published a breakdown of Netflix rentals by zip code, and predominately Black enclaves were the only one renting Perry films).
And every Tyler Perry is basically a reprise of the last one. But still, a movie about the lone moment when aviators of African ancestry did anything worthy of commemoration could not attract an audience as big as Tyler Perry—even counting the guilty white liberals who (presumably) attended.
It seems that stories revolving around the cross-dressing Perry (Madea was the matriarch of a dysfunctional Black family, played by Perry) have a much bigger audience than Red Tails
Perhaps if Perry’s Madea had been cast as the love interest of one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the movie might have had legs.
Paul Kersey[Email him] is the author of the blog SBPDL, and has published the books SBPDL Year One, Hollywood in Blackface and Captain America and Whiteness: The Dilemma of the Superhero.