Red Tails, Not the Silver Bullet of Racism
by Marc Arsell Robinson
Many people who concern themselves with race in America apparently think of racism, or racial inequality, as a sort of werewolf. And the silver bullet to kill this werewolf is the positive portrayal of African Americans in popular culture. At times, this investment in Black representations also manifest in discourses around “role models.” This problematic line of reasoning, that positive images are what is most needed to address racial inequality, has motivated much of the attention given to Red Tails, and even the film itself. In his interview on The Daily Show, producer George Lucas said he wanted to make Red Tails to show Black teenage boys that “they have heroes” who were “real American heroes.”
The overemphasis on giving Black youth positive images and role models is problematic for several reasons. For one, it plays into assumptions that pathologize Black parents, families and communities. This overemphasis elides structural inequalities, privileges patriarchal thinking, and contains an ambiguous notion of what a positive image is.
Does Red Tails have any value? Yes absolutely, a film that features a variety of capable, skilled, educated Black male heroes is certainly a need respite from the endless stream of White heroes in American popular culture. When talking to my son about the film (who like me is African American), he expressed great pleasure in having a Black hero movie because such films are so rare. Undoubtedly, many other movie goers had similar reactions to the film, which should not be discounted.
And, despite my critical lens, I too enjoyed the film—even with its predictable plot, poor dialogue, and inconsistent acting. I also appreciate how Red Tails has sparked interest in Tuskegee Airmen history, inspiring such articles as Henry Louis Gates’ piece about important women who the film left out like Mary McLeod Bethune and Willa Beatrice Brown. We even got a touching story about a romance between two Tuskegee Airmen, Herbert and Mildred Hemmons, who feel in love while flying airplanes together. The excavation of such history is another laudable result of Red Tail’s release, even though it is not the first film to cover this topic.
However, I am troubled by the deep investment in positive images I see surrounding the making a reception of the film for three main reasons. First off, it elides the structural realities that contribute to Black youth unemployment, drop-out rate, incarceration, and others ills. Leaving structural barriers out of the conversation easily slides into the conservative sentiment in favor of cutting anti-poverty and social welfare programs, claiming poor communities need role models rather than resources. This perspective was recently advocated by Rick Tyler, former aid and current campaign supporter of Newt Gingrich, on MSNBC. Role models and positive images do have a value, but focusing of them is all too easy because it facilitates the avoidance of more difficult issues of employer discrimination, school funding disparities, biased drug enforcement, and other types of institutionalized racism.
Secondly, this discourse around the need for positive images is problematic because it often harbors an underlying sexist, male bias. Lacking any Black female characters, Red Tails obviously reflects male-centered priorities. Lucas’ interview on The Daily Show where he said, “I wanted to make an inspirational [movie] for teenage boys,” further verifies this point. Efforts to specifically address young Black males can be a good thing, as long as they are balanced against American patterns of androcentrism. Regrettably, Red Tails fails in that regard.
Thinking about reception the film received, even getting a private screening hosted by President Obama, we must consider Charing Ball’s provocative question, “Why Are We Expected to Line Up for Red Tails But Not Pariah?” One major reason is because Red Tails plays into patriarchal patterns wherein the lives, deeds, and experiences of Black men are valued and celebrated over those of Black women. This focus on male achievement supports oppressive, Moynihan Report-type narratives that link African American social betterment to Black male domination.
Finally, the never ending search for positive Black images is problematic because of the ambiguity of what constitutes a “positive” image. Do to the heterogeneity and ideological diversity of Black Americas, Black folks inevitably will differ on whether an image is positive or not. Some will see the heroic, fighter pilots of Red Tails as obviously positive. Others, like Courtland Milloy of The Washington Post, will see the film as negative. Milloy described the pilots as “disheveled, undisciplined, crude and uncouth, they are the exact opposite of the real men who served in the all-black fighter group” and admonished the film as a “happy-go-lucky hip-hop war movie.” I have heard similar criticism of the film from others, such as an African American student of mine who wrote the Southern drawl of Neyo’s character sounded ignorant.
What these criticisms indicate is the futility of searching for an image that all African Americans we see as positive. The history of Black images in entertainment is full of debates over one image or another, illustrated in Marlon Riggs’ Color Adjustment. As many scholars have argued, African Americans and their allies need to put aside the politics of respectability. Like Herman Gray, we all should question “assumptions about African American investment in representation as a route to African American membership in national culture” (2). And we should fully acknowledge that even the perfect image, with the ideal role model, will not be the silver bullet of racial inequality.
Marc Arsell Robinson is a PhD candidate in the American Studies Program and teaches in the Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies Department at Washington State University. His dissertation is on the Black Student Union and Black Power in the late 1960’s. Follow him @MarcARobinson1