'Red Tails' Shatters Two Memes – Patriotism, Black Casts Can't Open Movies

The new World War II film “Red Tails” hauled in a tidy $19 million over the just-wrapped weekend.

That’s an impressive figure for a period film with no bankable stars opening against a popular franchise entry (“Underworld Awakening”) as well as Oscar bait material from Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”).

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So what gives?

“Red Tails” producer George Lucas hawked the film as a patriotic ode to our World War II heroes, specifically black pilots who pushed past racism to fight for their country. But patriotism doesn’t sell, right? If it did, Hollywood would be inundating movie theaters with pro-troop films and other tales of American soldiers in heroic action.

“Red Tails” also slices into another depressing Hollywood meme. The film industry doesn’t put out many films with predominantly black casts. Lucas himself talked about this during his publicity tour for the film, even if his chatter may have been more about film promotion than stark realities. Lucas’ harangue did spark a retort from filmmaker Tyler Perry, who warned films with black casts may soon become “extinct.”

The truth is black-led films sometimes struggle to make money overseas, one reason why Hollywood is uneasy about such projects. But will the success of “Red Tails,” combined with the recent smash “The Help” start to open up the industry to the black experience?

An even better patriotism test comes next month when “Act of Valor,” a film which boldly toasts American soldiers as heroes, hits theaters. A “Valor” take down of the film competition may open the floodgates for more pro-troop features, assuming the appropriate bean counters are taking notes.

Or, will Hollywood executives ignore the numbers and retreat to projects depicting U.S. soldiers in unflattering light? Is there a better chance we’ll see a new installment of “In the Valley of Elah” or “Redacted,” films showing the darker side of the modern soldier, than a “Red Tails” sequel?