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.]