Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Red Tails" and the Black Man's Burden

"The White Man's Burden" is the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling that was published in 1899.  In it Kipling describes the duty of white Europeans to lift up the native people of other continents from their supposedly "savage" existences -- as "half devil and half child."

Even if the poem is interpreted as calling upon the powerful nations to use their power wisely and for the benefit of others, rather than justifying imperialism, its racism and condescension are inescapable.

A review of the new film Red Tails on Yahoo! made me think of another burden, this one belonging to the "Black Man."  But it is a burden shared by other minorities in the United States.  In a review titled "The laudable 'Red Tails' misses its target," Jake Coyle complains that the film about a unit of African American pilots during World War II does not adequately address the racial prejudices the actual pilots had to overcome in the 1940s.

Coyle writes that George Lucas, the film's producer, is seeking to prove that there is a wide audience for a film with an all-black cast.  He writes: "That's a laudable goal, but 'Red Tails' reduces a historical story of deep cultural significance to merely a flyboy flick."

But why can't Lucas make a film with black lead actors that is "merely a flyboy flick"?

Coyle continues: "Instead of creating something authentic and new, 'Red Tails' superimposes the tale of the black World War II pilots on a dated, white genre of 1940s patriotic propaganda. 'Red Tails' is blatantly old-fashioned, just with a change in color."

Again, why not?

There have been plenty of films that address the problems of racism in the United States.  Even this particular historical situation has been addressed by HBO's The Tuskegee Airmen.  But must EVERY film with a primarily black cast be a "black movie"?

Must every story by or about African Americans bear the burden of America's history of racism and oppression?  Is that the Black Man's Burden, to always be reminding white folks about their sins or the sins of their ancestors?  Do not get me wrong: there is real value in telling stories that keep our sins in plain sight.  But having that be the only story is really limiting.  There are so many more stories to tell than just that one.

This is a cultural dynamic that I have blogged about before.  In "Dances with High-Heeled Sneakers" I wrote about a review of an exhibition in New York City by American Indian artists.  That reviewer seemed unable to understand or unwilling to accept American Indian artists who were telling a story other than the one he was familiar with: the tragic story of a people overrun by the United States and working desperately to keep the old ways alive.  The artists who emphasized humor and modernity seemed to confuse the reviewer; they refused to stay within the the confining role of Tragic Indian.

History is heavy, and everyone needs to take a break at some point from carrying its weight.

In Coyle's comments we also can see an example of something called markedness.  When we speak of binaries, one is marked and one is unmarked, and the unmarked is considered the broader or more powerful or significant of the two.  This term originally comes out linguistic studies, but it is applied to cultural studies, too.

There are movies and there are black movies.  The first term is very broad and could include almost any genre.  It is the unmarked term, unmarked since it has no adjective distinguishing it from the other term.  I imagine it would be a term understood to mean movies made with a mostly white cast and primarily for a white audience, which is still the largest movie-going audience in the United States, so it makes sense that Hollywood tries to appeal to that large pool of customers.   But no one calls them "white movies."  Movies with white lead actors are just movies.  Or if they are marked, it is by their genre category: action, romcom, drama, etc.   It is understood that the audiences for these films will be of all races.

That leads Coyle to say the Red Tails misses its mark because it is "merely a flyboy flick."  We have had those before.  In fact, there is one called Flyboys, and its cast is predominantly white.  Its theme, not the race of its cast, controlled the way it was discussed and presented.  Coyle seems to have trouble understanding Red Tails because it looks and feels and sounds like a flyboy flick -- but it has a black cast, and so therefore it must be a black movie.

And we know what black movies are.  They are either earnest history lessons or films made by Tyler Perry.  A cast of primarily African American actors.  A story arising from experiences in African American communities and characterized by expressions (gestures, words, intonations, etc.) understood to be "black."  And until recently, it was understood that such films appealed to a primarily black audience, and until Perry's character Madea got popular, "black films" could be expected to gross about $30-40 million because of that small audience.  But Madea Goes to Jail grossed about $90 million. 

An odd thing about the Yahoo! review is that the headline suggests the film misses its target by not telling the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, but then the review states Lucas's target was to make a film with a black cast that appealed to a broad audience. (Hasn't Perry answered that question?).  So, since historical accuracy was not the target, how can Lucas be accused of missing it?

It remains to be seen whether he does hit his target.  The film's ticket sales will determine that.  The yardstick Lucas seems to want the film measured by is not history or earnestness, but entertainment.  That is, is it a good film rather than a good history lesson?  (Coyle does address that in his review.)

I have not seen it.  But if Lucas was in control, I am not holding my breath.  I have yet to forgive him for Stars Wars I, II, and III.  See "The Badness of King George" for my thoughts on that.

1 comment:

  1. I love "Flyboys"! First WWI fighter-pilot flick with exceptional CGI and in-cockpit ANGLE-ONs. And I'm partial to James Franco, whom lots of people seem to either love or hate. Sadly I'll likely miss the theatrical release of "Red Tails" where it ought to be viewed on a gigantor screen. But there's always Blu-ray...