Tomorrow at 2,500 theaters across the nation, a movie I wrote about in my Dec. 8 column — “Red Tails” — will open.
I have some mixed feelings about this. Part of me is pleased that the story of World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen — Americans of African descent who concurrently fought for their country and, by extension, a better station in life in the land of the free and the home of the brave during a time when the idea of civil rights for all was as outlandish as a human landing on the moon.
In other words, the fact that “Red Tails” is coming to theaters is simply great news, notwithstanding that it took more than 65 years after that war ended for it to happen.
Whether the movie is any good is almost beside the point. It’s been made and more people than ever will know of the Tuskegee Airmen. This is marvelous. That it comes out the week we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. is sprinkles on the doughnut.
While pleased by the release of “Red Tails,” I have to also admit that I’m also envious, chagrined and exasperated that our community’s versions of the Tuskegee Airmen from WWII — the 100th Battalion/442nd RCT, as well as the Military Intelligence Service, individuals like Ben Kuroki, the Nisei in Merrill’s Marauders, et al — have not in contemporary times been accorded the same treatment, i.e., a major motion picture to convey their stories.
It is worth noting that the executive producer of “Red Tails” is George Lucas, the filmmaker behind a couple of the most-beloved and profitable motion picture franchises ever, namely “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.”
Regardless of what one may think of his seemingly endless latter-day tinkering with his “Star Wars” movies (adding special effects, changing dialogue and scenes in movies, retrofitting them with 3D), Lucas is a giant in movies and still a force with whom to be reckoned (pun semi-intended).
Lucas has been quoted as saying that the reason he self-financed “Red Tails” to the tune of $58 million is because he could not find a Hollywood studio willing to back the project. (See the Sunday New York Times Magazine article from Jan. 15.) Even if you’re a multibillionaire like Lucas, $58 million is a lot of personal bank to ante up to have one’s vision come to the screen. So, kudos to him; I’m sure “Red Tails” will, at the end of its run, finish in the black, so to speak.
If what he says is true, it’s also discouraging that a filmmaker of Lucas’ stature could not get the backing of a big studio to finance “Red Tails.” That speaks volumes about the lack of vision, guts and integrity of Hollywood — but that is nothing new.
The moral bankruptcy, absence of virtue and lack of propriety from Hollywood is no doubt also why no studio in recent times has pulled the trigger to dramatize the story of the 442. If George Lucas can’t sell a Tuskegee Airmen movie, how can we expect a 442 movie to ever be made without a 400-pound gorilla in our corner?
No disrespect intended toward filmmaker Justin Lin, who has a deal with Universal Pictures thanks to the success he had with the “Fast and Furious” film franchise, but reports that he wants to make a 442 movie are something I’ll believe when it’s in theaters.
Over the years, I’ve been very interested in mass media portrayals of Japanese and Japanese Americans, Asians and Asian Americans. That’s because even as a youngster I recognized a disconnect between what was on the big and small screens, and what I saw with my own two eyes, who I knew and interacted with, and what I experienced. TV and movies have a power, but it was being misused.
It’s no doubt why, about 20 years ago now, I went to the trouble of approaching others I knew and had met with an idea of mine, namely to create a nonprofit solely dedicated to being a watchdog for instances of inaccurate and unfair depictions (and news coverage) of Asian Americans and Asians. (That I no longer have anything to do with what would become Media Action Network for Asian Americans is a topic for another time.)
Taking Hollywood to task for every indiscretion is easy, because it always happens, and numbing, because it always happens.
What is difficult is creating alternatives to the carcinogenic, high-fructose corn syrup-laden, glossy crappola that Hollywood usually excretes. There are, of course, exceptions.
I recently wrote about the 30-plus-year journey it took for the 1976 telefilm “Farewell to Manzanar” to reach the home video market. Based on the book by the same name, “FTM” is one of those rare exceptions, like the characters of Sulu on “Star Trek” or Mr. Miyagi in the original “Karate Kid” movies, that can serve as an antidote to decades of treatment ranging from benign neglect to race-baiting to old school yellowface caricatures to present day whitewashing of characters who were Japanese or Asian in an original incarnation.
Even the journey of “Farewell to Manzanar” to DVD has a bittersweet quality because, as I reported, it took a series of dumb luck and random chance for it to finally reach the home market, since its rights holder, Universal Home Entertainment, was perfectly happy to let it rot on a shelf rather than to do the right thing by spending a few bucks to make it available and even make some modest coin in the process.
Since the inception of this column in 1992, I’ve changed my focus from railing over every slight to putting the spotlight works by individuals, be they actors, writers, directors or documentarians, who have made an effort to tell a part of the Japanese American or Asian American story.
There is actually a wealth of talent; some have even won industry accolades. None, however, are necessarily household names. People like, in no particular order, Chris Tashima, Iris Yamashita, Derek Shimoda, Frank Abe, Lane Nishikawa, Robert Nakamura, Robert Horsting, Craig Yahata, Vince Matsudaira, Jeff Adachi, David Yoneshige, Gina Hiraizumi, Steven Okazaki, Junichi Suzuki, Jesse Kobayashi, Tim Yasui, Todd Yasui, Ken Watanabe, Pat Morita and Kane Kosugi.
There are also many others I’ve learned about through the years who have also contributed to that story: Velina Hasu Houston, Amy Hill, Tadashi Nakamura, Sab Shimono, Sharon Yamato, Desmond Nakano, George Takei, Clyde Kusatsu, Keone Young, Dan Kwong and John Esaki. Some I’ve met, some not.
There is also a wealth of stories, universal human stories, on Japanese Americans and Japanese, whether it’s Iva Toguri or Fred Korematsu, Chiune Sugihara or Momotaro. I think it is foolish to wait for some Hollywood heavyweight like George Lucas to come along and make our wishes come true when it comes to dramatically telling one of our stories, whether its the 442 or the Resisters of Conscience. Heck, we can’t even depend on Japanese-owned Sony Pictures Entertainment to cast a movie adaptation like “Memoirs of a Geisha” with Japanese or Japanese American actresses!
So here’s what I’d like to pitch: If you saw your name mentioned or if you are reading this and personally know one of those among the aforementioned, send me an email at the address down below. Or, if you have a concrete example of something you produced or have membership in SAG, DGA or WGA, write me.
I’d like to see if there is any interest in putting together a an informal, one-day meeting of Japanese American and Japanese producers, writers, directors, actors, documentarians, cartoonists and storyboard artists, cinematographers, composers, casting directors and so on, the sooner the better.
As a working title, let’s call it the Nikkei Media Project. We could meet-and-greet, exchange business cards and résumés, break bread (can you break a Spam musubi?), vent, figure out ways to collaborate and maybe, just maybe, lay the groundwork to work together and do our own version of “Red Tails,” on our own, on our terms.
We are very fortunate to live in a time when the tools of production (high-quality digital video cameras and editing gear) and means of marketing and distribution (the Web) are readily available. Not only that, there is an audience hungry for these stories, not to mention a younger generation that needs to know its heritage.
Those of us in L.A. County have Hollywood in our backyard, but we no longer need to beg, hat in hand, for an opportunity to tell these stories ourselves. We need no one’s permission.
The name of this column is, after all, Into the Next Stage. I’d like to make it more literal in 2012.
Write me. Please.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)