Pariah and Red Tails: Film Finance, Sexuality and Race.

I will be writing a series of posts about Pariah. This is the first of three or four.

Dedicated to @Very54. I missed you too.

The conversation around Red Tails and Pariah is interesting in it brings the politics of black stories and professional Black storytellers to the forefront. (Peace to James McBride for the language of professional Black storytellers.)

This post isn’t about the content of the films, but about how audiences perceive movies, the history of White hollywood and the politics of getting stories made and distributed that feature Black subjects.

George Lucas personally financed Red Tails, after the Hollywood establishment decided that a film with all Black leads isn’t viable.  Forrest Wickman in Slate writes,

George Lucas, who produced the movie, has said that he was forced to finance it on his own—to the tune of $58 million—when studios balked at the marketability of a film with all black leads.

Last week, after the release of Red Tails,  on John Stewart’s show, Lucas went on record saying that the Hollywood establishment did not know how to market Red Tails with an all Black lead casts.  Sofia Hernandez writes,

He continued, “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market for it and that’s 60 percent of their profit…I showed it to all of them and they said ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’ ”

Unlike the Matthew BroderickDenzel Washington Civil War drama Glory or other films depicting black soldiers in battle, the World War II pic Red Tails does not feature a white protagonist, said Lucas, “It’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all. It’s one of the first, all-black action pictures ever made. It’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. They were real heroes.”

As a scholar, I do the political economy of culture, which is a fancy way of saying that I examine the way race, gender and institutional power impacts how art (music and films and books) is made.

The fact that the overseas market plays such a huge role in determining whether or not the Hollywood film establishment would support Red Tails is significant.

Filmmaking is capital intensive and historically the domain of White men. For me, it would have been interesting if Lucas mentioned that movies featuring Black subjects have a hard time within the Hollywood establishment and went on to mention the fact that it is a miracle that Pariah has been made. This would have opened the space to talk about films made featuring Black people by a seasoned White male filmmaker and a new comer Black woman filmmaker. It would have opened the space to ask how does money, and race, and sexuality impact their films similarly and differently?

I’ve seen Pariah twice. The first time was at a screening with the producer, Kim Wayans, Dee Rees the director, Nekisa Cooper the producer and Adepero Oduye the star. The second time was with a nearly all Black sold out crowd at an art house theater.  I’ll see Red Tails next weekend.

Based on my notes from the Q&A on Pariah, the film cost approximately five hundred thousand dollars to make, and it took them 18 days to complete it. As of January 22nd, 2012 it made $497,579. This is a second career for the director/producer duo as Cooper and Rees met while they were both in corporate America, working a Proctor and Gamble. Cooper and Rees also fundraised and used credit to get the film made. Lastly, many of the crew members were willing to work without pay (temporarily) because they believed in the project.

Given the fact that the birth of film in the United States is largely thought to be “Birth of a Nation” it is in fact a miracle that Pariah was made in the first place.

What is interesting to me is that Reese and crew’s narrative has been one of we did it, come out and support, I have been working on this story for a while, no it is not autobiographical, but there are parts of me in here and I am glad we were able to make it.

So my questions are.

Why were Black folks in social media spaces and in comment sections of the mainstream press seemingly more willing to rally around Lucas’s film but not Reese’s?

Yes, the films are two different audiences, but they both feature Black casts, they both have awesome and interesting back histories in terms of film finance and they both feature stories that need to be told.

Is Black homophobia working here?

If we take the statement “We need to support Red Tails because if we don’t the Hollywood establishment may not make anymore movies featuring us” then don’t we assume that we have more control over film finance than we actually do?

Why would a Black person in 2012 assume that they can control which films come out of Hollywood, when it is clear that “overseas marketing possibilities” have far more control, at least with Red Tails?

I love writing about movies the way I use to Love writing about rap music. I hope it shows.

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  1. Kismet Nunez says

    “Why would a Black person in 2012 assume that they can control which films come out of Hollywood, when it is clear that “overseas marketing possibilities” have far more control, at least with Red Tails?”

    This is scarily relevant. It was part of the discussion surrounding the Help and part of the argument made by those who wished to support it who were concerned that if we don’t pay for movies with black actors and actresses, we will never see those movies made.

    I think you are pointing out exactly where we–as black people consuming movies in the US market–need to be looking and even organizing if we want to continue having a conversation about why movies are made and how our image is being reproduced abroad. We don’t do this enough.

    Anecdotally, (and riffing a bit) I was in France when the Secret Life of Bees dropped. And I remember being surprised when I found myself in a conversation with a woman from Martinique about the importance of making films with black characters and storylines centering the black experience–and how the US is at the forefront of that. Then again, Nollywood did not come up. So there is interesting and in some ways problematic potential here for a market in black movies abroad.

  2. Renina says

    Ironcially, it is my earlier work on the Political Economy of Beyonce that allows me to hone in on the money, and institutional power and the creation of pop art/ music+films.

    “I think you are pointing out exactly where we–as black people consuming movies in the US market–need to be looking and even organizing if we want to continue having a conversation about why movies are made and how our image is being reproduced abroad. We don’t do this enough”
    The elephant in the room Gina is that what instantly came to mind for me is that Rap music and hip hop culture is a global Phenomenon, and companies have figured out how to use to to market deodorant, cars and sodas; Globally.

    The fact of the matter is that by and large African-americans do not have control of how representations of African Americans travel globally. To put this issue on Black film audiences is hella disrespectful and ahistorical.

  3. Very54 says

    A post dedicated to me? I’m honored to say the least. 

    “Why were Black folks in social media spaces and in comment sections of the mainstream press seemingly more willing to rally around Lucas’s film but not Reese’s?”
    1. A lot of black folks are “mainstream” i.e they go to the movies to see blockbusters, action movies. From my understanding “Pariah” is more of a cinema d’auteur type of movie (I haven’t watched it….yet) so by definition it is NOT mainstream.
    2. There was more publicity around Red Tails (bigger budget, bigger ads). The main argument used to market it was that Lucas had to fight against hollywood studios and finance it himself to make it. Black peeps we love to see a white man fighting on our side, it makes us feel good, validated.  I find heartbreaking that Black men would fight to have a right to kill (or serve if you’re pro-military)  alongside with people who dehumanize them- but thats a whole other topic isnt it? I go to Abyssinian Baptist and I was surprised to hear Rev. Butts asking us to support the movie…
    3. Which leads me to the 3rd point. Pariah is from what I understand a personal film made by a woman that deals with homosexuality. A lot of us are still quoting the bible, the coran and the Torah to justify homophobia. I am quick to point out to those that these same holy books were used to justify slavery 200 years ago. And slavery is still an ongoing issue in Muslim countries like Mauritania btw. So we ought to be careful how we interpret those books and really respect the life within any being, straight, gay, trans. Full stop. (I love when u write that 😉
    Homophobia is working here of course but not only, consider gender. As black women we are still fighting to get our voices heard in a patriarchal society. And black people for the most part (both men and women) are unwilling to support a movie made by a woman about a sensitive subject: uncomfortable? Airing dirty laundry? I dunno. But it sucks.
    I made the decision not to go watch Red Tails. I have respect for the Tuskegee fighters (there’s 1 that lives on my block he’s sooooo fly 😉 but with my limited time and $$$ I chose to support independent artists.

  4. Renina says


    Really interesting comment here. I even put it on tumbrl. o.0 (let me know if you want me to take it down). Link:

    Re George Lucas: I had never considered the fact that some Black folks like when White men side with them. This makes sense in terms of them lining up to back him up. I appreciate the fact that Lucas talked about the international finance piece. Pariah will make it’s money back, ( believe it was sold to Focus Features for $2-3M dollars).

    Re: Pariah being personal. Filmmaking is a labor and capital intensive process. It has to be personal in order to stay dealing with the hoops and bullshit that comes along with raising the money, dealing with a crew selling it, finishing it. I would argue that both Pariah and Red Tails are both personal projects. You know what we feminists say, “The Personal is Political”.

    Re:Abyssinian It is really interesting that your pastor recommended that the congregation go see it. I think it is fascinating that one of the Air-Men live on your block. Perhaps Lucas should have made a documentary instead. It would be interesting to hear what these Black men have to say about life.

  5. james.garrett.junior says

    **DISCLAIMER: i’m still out of the country and haven’t seen either film yet however;

    1) the “low-budget-indy-flick-paid-for-with-max’d-CCs” has been told SOOO many times over the years from matty rich, spike lee, et al so how is PARIAH ‘ground-breaking’ in this respect??

    2) if only 13% of the overall USA poulation is african-american and only +/-10% of that population is GLBT–only about 1/2 of which is LESBIAN, then PARIAH was made to tell the story of approximately .65% of the USA market…why the hell would anybody EXPECT that movie/story to be a popular crossover sensation?..strikes me as particularly absurd/dilusional, again, to ASSUME that folks en-mass in hollywood, the black community or anywhere else would get behind it.

    ^^^which is NOT to say that the work of art shouldn’t have been made or isn’t award worthy, but if the theme of this blog is to question why RED TAILS was something blk folks rallied around as opposed to the relative web absence of PARIAH, then it seems appropriate to make these points.

  6. Renina says

    Pariah is significant because
    it is a film directed by a Black woman writer director, featuring a Black girl as the subject, in 2012. Well, it was made in 2009, but I digress.

    The feature films which depict Black girls and women are not directed by Black women. There have been 5 in the last three years directed by Black men:
    Lee Daniels- Precious
    Tyler Perry- For Colored GIrls
    Chris Rock- Good Hair
    Bill Duke- Dark Girls
    Tim Story- Think Like a Man

    There has never been a period in the history of film in the US where five Black women have directed and released feature films featuring Black women as subjects over a three year period. (Readers if I am wrong about this
    , then correct me, as I would be excited as shit to learn about this time period). This is why Pariah is significant.

    Re #2. James, you know I Love you, but the numbers game homie, you killing me. If you dismiss Pariah because you assume that it is a Black Lesbian movie made for Black lesbians, then how can you get upset when White folks don’t want to see Negro male based narratives such as Red Tails, because it is a “Black film”. By that logic, Blacks are only 13 percent of the population so who cares about their stories anyways? To sit and watch a movie is to consent to be taught, in many ways. In saying that person refuses to see Pariah because it is a “Black lesbian movie”, or refuses to see Red Tails because it is a “Negro Male movie” is a refusal to be willing to see the main characters as human; it is also rooted in an unwillingness to identify with their plights.

    There are/were high cross over AND award hopes for Pariah. It was made for $500K, premiered at Sundance, and was sold for $2-3M.

    A good movie is like a good date or kiss, it grabs you and stays with you. Leave it to me to eroticize the film experience. o.0

  7. Tek says

    IT seems to me that it’s a simple answer to the question and it’s a question of power. George Lucas has it and the Producers of Pariah do not. George Lucas was fighting to get a story he wanted told, into the market. If he were fighting for us he would be out looking for film writers, directors movies like Pariah, and throwing his money behind the stories ‘WE” want told. Marginalized people already know that it’s hard to get the ‘money’ people behind the stories with all black casts, or all black crew, or simpy all black writers. George Lucas talked about it like he just discovered it. the power of privilege allows that to happen

  8. Renina says

    Well shit. Of course power is at work here.

    George Lucas talked about it like he just discovered it.
    He did and and it is one of the reasons why this particular moment is so powerful.