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Monday, January 23, 2012

Red Tails: Using Privilege for good?

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For white allies seeking racial justice, it's essential to examine the line between using one's privilege for good and becoming a white savior. In trying to promote his new move, Red Tails, George Lucas precariously walks that line.

Red Tails follows the story of the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps in their early combat missions in Italy during World War II. In general, movies that glorify/sugar coat the horrors of war aren't high on my view list and this one has it's share of flashy fight scenes under a heroic veneer. But it's a welcome change to see black folks leading the gallant charge in a major motion picture. Lucas acknowledges "it’s not like Glory, where you have a lot of white officers run these guys into cannon fodder."

Lucas has been making the rounds promoting Red Tails in print and on television, hoping his Star Wars clout/fan base will help bring attention to the movie. Sometimes, the best thing a white person can do is use her/his privilege to help spread the word about racial injustice, knowing that (for better or worse) white voices get heard more than those of color.

And for the most part, Lucas seems to be doing a good job of bring attention to the issues. He talks about the systemic struggles that black directors/actors face, and points to the successes of people in color that came before him. He makes it a point to highlight the fact the film's release was significantly delayed by Hollywood's resistance to promote a black film with no major white roles.

Lucas bemoans the fact that if even he struggles to be allowed to produce such a film (despite the fact he financed the project with his own $58 million), it will be all but impossible for those facing continued racial discrimination to do so. He is also aware enough to recognize that if Red Tails flops, he puts other black films at risk by affirming the movie studios' prejudices.

So Lucas seems genuine in his desire to help, and for the most part is doing what he can to use his privilege for good. If he can lend his face recognition to help increase the notoriety of the Tuskegee Airmen, that's great. But there are a couple other things he might have done that would have kept him solidly out of 'white savior' territory. 

I understand that he's the famous guy everyone wants to interview, but Cuba Gooding Jr, Ne-Yo, and Terrence Howard have a good deal of name recognition in their own right. Why not have them join you for your Daily Show interview? Or it might have been nice if Lucas had also asked that Huffington and USA Today interview Anthony Hemingway, the budding director that is making his feature film debut. Or perhaps best of all would be to hear from the actual airmen that this movie is about! After all, they won't be with us for much longer.

It could be that Lucas did indeed ask that these things happen, but was denied. And it's not his fault that the media is the way it is. So, I'm more apt to be critical of white anti-racism pundits like Tim Wise, who have gained significant notoriety (read: $$) on news networks for decades without giving significant recognition to the people of color who laid the foundations for their work. Indeed, maybe I perpetuating the problem by talking about these issues, instead of about the actual Airmen and their legacy (See post: Tuskegee Airmen).

If you don't know their story in detail, read up on it. Then support the Red Tails at the box office and prove the movie industry wrong. Know that racism isn't cured over one beer at an officers club, and that the 'happily-ever-after-now-that-racism-is-dead' ending doesn't at all reflect the reality of what these men faced when they got home. But enjoy the war-glory film for what it is, knowing that it is a long awaited addition to its genre.


  1. Abagond's thoughts:

  2. I was frustrated that Red Tails had the female romantic lead be white. But gave them a bit of a pass since it took place in Italy. 

    But then I got to thinking, it wouldn't have been that hard to have a romantic interplay with a black female love interest back home via love letters and flashbacks.
    Now Ryan sends this article that could have totally made for a great black female role:

  3. It seems studios have NO issues showing blacks that are downtrodden: Precious, the Help, The Blindside, the Color Purple etc, etc etc


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