Ethics Quiz: Is This Racism, or Just Business?

The Mother Jones headline is designed to provoke a gasp: George Lucas: Hollywood Didn’t Want To Fund My Film Because Of Its Black Cast.

The headline is literally accurate. Lucas tells the magazine that he had trouble finding backers for “Red Tails,” his upcoming film about the fabled Tuskegee airmen, because the studios told him that films without white protagonists didn’t draw a wide enough audience, especially overseas, to make his film a good investment for them. Presuming that the film-makers know their business—and presuming their real reason for rejecting Lucas was not that the movies he’s produced lately were god awful, —Lucas’s story raises this Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Question, which you may answer if you dare:

Is a studio that refuses to fund a movie with an all-black cast engaging in racism, or just practicing business responsibly?

I think it is a very hard question. What are the duties of a movie studio? Are they…

  • …to make great movies?
  • ….to serve the widest audience possible?
  • ….to enrich the culture?
  • ….to use entertainment to better the lives of Americans?
  • ….to provide jobs for those in the movie profession?
  • ….to make a profit for its stockholders?

Or is it all of the above? Clearly, if it is all of them, some must take priority over the others. A company that makes uplifting movies that nobody comes to see isn’t fulfilling any of these goals, and won’t be around long enough to find the right balance. Yet can it be ethical and defensible for a business to reinforce harmful, anti-social or destructive tendencies in society by catering to them? Branch Rickey decided that it was time for baseball to finally field black players, even though most of his colleagues thought breaking the color barrier would hurt ticket sales. Rickey felt it was the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. As it happened, breaking the color line was both right and good business, as being ethical often is.

Still, if movie executives think they will lose millions because a cast is all-black, can we fairly say they are ethically obligated to make the movie? What if they think the movie is a wonderful idea, but also that some other studio will finance it—as in fact happened with “Red Tails”? Is the only studio that is ethically obligated to fund such a movie the one with the most resources to lose, or are all studios equally on the hook, racists if they reject the film, however risky, because the underlying reason is race?

Then there is this: is a moviegoer who prefers movies with white actors really a racist? I like movies with monsters, serial killers, John Wayne, lawyers, soldiers, baseball players, flying monkeys, Fred Astaire and gorgeous women—so what? 21st Century America, as a mass audience, doesn’t like movies with singing, cowboys, history, Lindsay Lohan and Ben Affleck—again, so what? If I prefer movies with beautiful women in them to those without, am I a sexist? If I dislike martial arts movies with sub-titles, am I anti-Asian? Do our choices in entertainment, unrelated to how we live our lives otherwise, mark us as bad people?

I think—I think--that the answer to the quiz question is that turning down “Red Tails” for purely business reasons is ethically neutral at worst, and  deciding to take on the project is ethically exemplary—courageous and responsible, as long as it doesn’t put the studio out of business.

I’m not sure. Your views are welcome.

[Note: An earlier version of this posts suggested that Lucas was the director of “Red Tails.” He’s not. Thanks to Neil Dorr for the correction.]

18 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Business & Commercial, History, Popular Culture, Race

18 responses to “Ethics Quiz: Is This Racism, or Just Business?

  1. Arthur in Maine

    Correct answer: ROI for stockholders. They don’t get that without the other five bullets.

    A black cast doesn’t spell loss by default. Like most movies, a good story and great acting are the keys. Examples: Lady Sings the Blues had a box office of nearly $20 million on a budget of $14 million (exclusive of cable and video, and the studio takes the bulk); Do The Right Thing did a box of $37 mm against a budget of 6.5 mm. Menace 2 Society did $28 mm against a budget of $3.5 mm. .Dreamgirls had a box of $154 mm against a budget of $80 mm.

  2. Pingback: Ethics Quiz: Is This Racism, or Just Business? | Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  3. Pingback: Ethics Quiz: Is This Racism, or Just Business? | Ethics Alarms | Online Study Time

  4. Is it too equivocal to say “both”?

    There’s nothing inherently racist about such a decision, and studios are in the business of making money, not of supporting social causes.

    And it is certainly true that crappy movies with black casts won’t fare as well as crappy movies with white casts. But the studio execs who brought us a zillion sequels of movies that weren’t any good to begin with aren’t as willing to trust films with black (female, etc.) casts, regardless of their merits. As Arthur has suggested, there are plenty of exceptions to Conventional Wisdom, plenty of films with black casts that make money (and those with white casts that lose truckloads of it). But the CW generally gets to be the CW for a reason.

    Are the studio execs inept? Yes. But whereas all racism is stupid, not all stupidity is racist.

  5. It’s not racist-not on the movie studios’ part anyway. They are in business to make money. The true “racists”? The audience. The truth is, it may not do all that well because it won’t grab the white audience. Lets look at why Will Smith has gotten a fair amount of success from his films-usually he is beside a lead, white character. Denzel Washington as well. Oh, and lets not forget Don Cheadle. When it comes down to it, I can’t tell the future so we’ll just have to see. Thanks for the post.

    • You may be right, but I’m not yet comfortable with that conclusion. Are black audiences racist for preferring Tyler Perry movies to Woody Allen movies? People like to watch movies they can identify with. We have no trouble telling writers and movie makers that girls need movies about heroines they can feel close to; boys like movies about boys. New Yorkers like movies about New York; Texans like movies about Texas. Is that wrong? And if not, why can’t whites prefer movies about other whites?

      • Danielle

        Funny Girl, The 7 Year Itch, Rear Window, The French Connection, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, King Kong, Godzilla, Escape From New York, Taxi Driver, Barefoot in the Park, The Warriors, Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Day After Tomorrow, Serpico, The Godfather, Miracle on 34th Street, Moscow on the Hudson, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The Muppets Take Manhattan! … lots of people like movies about New York. Especially if there is an underdog or the city is being destroyed. This isn’t about what the audience would like. It is about what Hollywood thinks the audience will like. Hollywood is so ethically twisted in general, I don’t think we can ever accept their rationale as reality without looking deeper. I agree with Bill, it is not about the audience or even making money, it is about making what they consider enough money. To do that, they will happily tell us what we want to watch.

        • Danielle, I think you’ve hit on the most important point in negotiating the space between racism and business in this topic: “This isn’t about what the audience would like. It is about what Hollywood thinks the audience will like.”

          The issue isn’t strictly racism on the part of the studio or on the part of the audience; it’s that there’s a mutually agreed-upon expectation of racism. Studios don’t think mainstream audiences are going to see movies with black protagonists, and audiences don’t think studios are going to make good films with black casts. The color barrier needs to be broken either by a major studio gambling on the possibility that an audience will look beyond a new films cast or by the audience seeking out films that have diverse casts but less resources for production and distribution. It seems to me that until one of those things happens on a large scale, there’s an ongoing vicious cycle.

    • Bill

      Will Smith in my opinion stars and carrys evry movie he is in. I wonder if he had been invovled in this project would it have changed the money peoples mind?

  6. Travis

    If the decision was based on the belief that the film would not make money than it was not racist. The primary goal of the executives is to make money for their studios right. If movies with all black casts tend to be financual failured then they did nothing wrong by turning Lucas down.

    • Bill

      Its not that they dont make money. Its that they domt make as MUCH money as they like. I also think it has to do with the sort sightedness of the people trying to sell the movie.

  7. Bill

    I dont know if its racist, it strikes me more that this decision once again shows that the people making the decisions are lazy. If it isnt something they have sold before they dont think they can sell it again. I for one cant wait to see this.

  8. To answer the question, the studios decision to not make a movie based on financial considerations is not racist. But the crux of this issue is who, and how they arrived at this conclusion. A big issue in Hollywood, (and a a lot of other business’) is that the people who make the decisions, and the advisors they most often surround themselves with, are not diverse. This fact causes them to look at movies through the only available eyes. That’s where life experience, taste, previous performance, good story lines, bankable stars etc are supposed to come together. But because they operate from a limited perspective, ( the reasons why are not relevant for to this discussion) you tend to get broad statements like, “a movie with an all black cast won’t make money”. If you have people that you know and trust, and they happen to be smart, a different conclusion might be reached.

  9. So to fully answer the question, it’s not racist, but it is bad business. But there’s no law against bad business. The movie got made, and my prediction is that the people who passed, based on it not projecting to make enough money, will think differently next time they see a project like this….

  10. Jack,
    Not the biggest of oversights, but your post does contain a few minor inaccuracies in regards to Lucas’ film career. To start with, despite his rather long tenure, he’s only directed (or, rather, is only credited as director in) a total of 6 films (of which “Red Tails” is not one). These include the three most recent “Star Wars” films, “Episode IV,” “American Graffiti,” and “THX 1138.” Thus, it would be inaccurate to say the last two films he directed that weren’t Star Wars were bombs, as that could only be applied to “THX 1138 (and even then, has gained cult popularity since its original release).

    Likewise, “Red Tails” was another project he produced but ultimately left the directing to someone who was presumably far more capable (in this case a relatively unknown director whose only previous work has been in television .. which may have been another reason why the film proved such a hard sell) In fairness, you never actually labelled him as the “director,” instead saying only that it was his film, but I thought it was nonetheless a distinction worth making.

    That having been said, you’re not wrong in arguing that Lucas has proven himself to be increasingly hit-or-miss in regards to the success of pictures he produces and directs and this may very well have played a key part in the studio’s reluctance to finance the film (especially when coupled with market research data). Right or wrong, movie-goers do tend to associate films with an all-black cast tend to be another “black film” in the tradition of Tyler Perry or “Boyz in tha Hood,” even if they’re of a completely different nature. This was very much the case with “Death at a Funeral” which was an American remake of a British film which, despite having a largely black cast, did very little to alter the plot or tone of the original, yet was still considered by many to be a black movie.

    Anyways, hopefully that wasn’t too nit-picky. Best!

    -Neil

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