I should first say that I rarely go to movies, so boycotting Red Tails is, for me, not all that remarkable. There’s a whole universe of blockbuster movies I haven’t seen. From ET to Titanic to Schindler’s List to any of the Spiderman, Batman, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies, I’ve missed them all.
The last movie I saw in a theater was “No Country for Old Men”. I consider the Cohen brothers artistic geniuses; anytime they come out with a new movie that looks interesting, I at least consider traipsing off to the theater to sit in the company of people whom I don’t know nor care to know, in a setting that is loud, uncomfortable and expensive, to see it. But even with the Cohen brothers, I sometimes just wait for the DVD. Though coming late in his life, Clint Eastwood has also proved his directorial chops with me. Outside of No Country, “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino” were the best movies I’ve seen in the last decade.
I won’t argue with the cinematic brilliance of Red Tails executive producer George Lucas. I saw his original Star Wars as a kid, but lost interest in the franchise as an adult. I’ve never seen any of the five sequels.
But there are a few reasons I want to explicitly point out that I won’t be seeing Red Tails.
First is that I think most historical fiction, movie or literary, is just bunk. Either do the history or do the fiction, but don’t try to simultaneously do both. I understand that history, even in documentary or academic form, is often something of a tapestry of half-truths and lies woven to make some sort of claim that animates our understanding of the present and future. But historical fiction seems to be just a lazy way to get around coming up with a plot. At its best, fiction is an art form exploring the nature of reality and humanity in a way that teaches while it entertains. Historical fiction, depending for its plot on well-known historical narratives, doesn’t teach, and only rarely entertains. For example, what is educational or entertaining about a fictionalized account of the attack on Pearl Harbor? Fictionalized history, such as “Pearl Harbor” depicted, depends on the audience knowing the history as taught in school (which was likely itself more dogma than fact), carrying with it the necessity of hewing to the textbook history, which limits character development to not much more than caricature.
Second, the mythologized history of the Tuskegee Airmen depends on latent racism to make the story compelling. There is nothing at all remarkable today about black men capably flying airplanes in combat, unless one carries in the heart a hint of the idea that perhaps it really is true that blacks are inferior in some amorphous way to the every other race that can. Of course blacks can capably fly airplanes. Not all blacks can capably fly airplanes, but then, neither can all whites, though the proportion of each that could be taught to fly is probably much higher than most people imagine. As a former Army helicopter pilot with a bit of experience in the premises, I feel confident in saying that pretty much anyone–black, white, yellow, etc.– that can drive an automobile ought to be able to learn to fly.
Was it pigheaded of the US government to bar blacks from jobs as pilots during the first couple of decades of powered flight, just as it was learning how to use aviation as a force-multiplier on the battlefield? Of course, but it must be remembered that it was not even a decade prior to mankind taking to the air (Kitty Hawk in 1903) that the US government’s supreme judicial authority had implicitly supported the view (in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) that blacks were innately inferior to whites by upholding segregationist laws founded on that view.
Because blacks wanting to serve as pilots had been treated so poorly, once they were allowed to serve in black-only squadrons, it then became necessary to exaggerate and mythologize their capabilities and contributions to the war effort, as the movie, necessarily required to follow the widely-accepted historical script, undoubtedly does. But just as blacks are no less capable as pilots as are whites, neither are they any more capable. Black aviators did heroic things in World War Two. So too did white, Hispanic and Asian (on both sides of the conflict) aviators do heroic things on the battlefield. Their race had nothing to do with it.
It is mainly the education establishment, with the support of the federal government, that tries to ascertain, on a group level, the innate capabilities of the various races, so far as one’s race is even ascertainable. As a group, blacks and Hispanics fare poorly on academic measures relative to whites, who in turn fare poorly relative to Jews and Asians. But group measures say nothing of individuals, and individual measures, in a society to which individual rights and responsibilities apply, should be paramount. To imagine a black man can’t do math because of his race is the essence of stupidity and laziness. Even when humans are categorized along racial lines, there are always superlatives at either end of the distribution. There are Jews with a lower IQ than the average black, and there are whites that really can jump extraordinarily high. A person’s race says absolutely nothing about that individual’s particular attributes.
I don’t wish for my identity to be limited by what appears to be my white European ancestry (I don’t really know much of my own genealogy) . The only race to which I wish to belong is the human race. I try to treat others the same, but movies such as Red Tails, and the mythologized historical narratives upon which they depend, demand considerations of race, or the narrative fails.
Finally, the trailer to the movie, repeatedly aired during commercial segments of television shows I happen to watch (mainly football games), depicts a scene that is utter nonsense, nevermind the silly voice over where the narrator talks about “returning one husband to his wife; one father to his children”. In the scene, a pilot and leader in the squadron has his group huddled around him before a mission, kind of how Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens huddles his defensive teammates together to give a pep talk for the television cameras before a game, or how Drew Brees does the same for the Saints, or how college basketball teams gather in a circle crouched low, with arms draped on each others shoulders, while some player stands in the middle and leads cheers to the swaying of the team.
In the trailer, the squadron leader begins a chant with “to the last man, to the last plane, to the last bullet….we fight”, to which his teammates respond “we fight”, which is then repeated a couple of times. This depicts a scene that I can almost guarantee never took place, but plays well to a crowd that believes Ray Lewis and Drew Brees and the college basketball team are doing something more than just putting on a show for the fans. Fighting a war is not analogous to playing a football or basketball game (and the cheer-huddles of each sport are for the fans–it can never be forgotten that sport is entertainment). War is about killing people. It is a somber affair for all except the most pathological. It humbles even the most arrogant. Even in victory, there is great loss; the battlefield inevitably claims some husbands and fathers and friends. To implicitly reduce war to something akin to a sporting contest in order that addled entertainment consumers can somehow relate is contemptible and ahistorical. The Tuskegee airmen that fought were better than this; they were like everyone else that has faced the prospect of killing or being killed in battle. It is the essence of racism to believe or depict them otherwise.
All that, and the sticky floors and exhorbitantly priced snacks and the crowd of people I don’t know nor care to know with whom I’ll be scrunched together in the theater audience, means Red Tails is yet another movie I won’t be seeing.