“My girlfriend is black, and I’ve learned a lot about racism including the fact that it hasn’t gone away, especially in American business. But on a social level there’s less prejudice than there was. So I figured, let’s put another hero up there.” – George Lucas
Red Tails, the action drama about Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, opened in theaters nationwide today. George Lucas’s herculean efforts to get the film made – which included personally financing the project to the tune of $93 million – are well documented. Over the past few weeks I have received numerous messages via e-mail, Facebook and radio strongly urging support of this film during its opening weekend. This is supposed to send an unmistakable message to Hollywood power brokers to make more “positive” black films. Really? I think not. Begging through the box office – as proven time and time again – is not an effective way to get more racially balanced, multi-dimensional and realistic images from the film industry. Also, despite the film’s historical significance and Lucas’s good intentions, Red Tails is not worthy of the cause célèbre status that has been bestowed upon it by many in the African American community.
“I’m making it for black teenagers. They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does.” – George Lucas
Of course everyone should know and claim their history, but it is the height of paternalistic arrogance for Lucas to determine what that should be for black teenagers. Red Tails was historically shallow and predictable in a cartoonish way. More attention was given to the action scenes than to story and character development. There was no sense of the black pilots’ familial ties, experiences in America, or expectations and hopes. Their motivations – beyond patriotism – were unclear. Other possible motivating factors, such as making their communities and loved ones proud and/or expanding career options, were not explored. One of the pilots carried a photo of black Jesus which was very progressive for the 1940s. Unfortunately, that pilot crashed and was badly burned. I leave you to interpret that subtext for yourself.
The pervasiveness of racism à la Jim Crow was watered down when dealt with at all. One such scene took place in the segregated officers’ club. The Tuskegee Airmen were invited in by the white officers and treated to drinks after a successful mission. One of the Tuskegee pilots, Smoky (Ne-Yo), chose to share an oft-told, corny joke about color. The gist of the “comic” story was that whites turn various colors depending on their emotions, yet they call black people colored. The white and black officers shared a laugh. Kumbaya! This unrealistic, contrived, feel-good moment glossed over the complexity of racism. During the Jim Crow era, I find it hard to believe that black officers would enter a segregated officers’ club, even if invited. They would create their own gathering space to relax and let loose. If they did take that risk, however, they certainly wouldn’t tell a joke about whites while there. However, in Lucas’s world, all is well over a beer. How does this fanciful nostalgia benefit black teenagers? I have no idea.
“I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions]. I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.” – George Lucas
So now the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks sees himself as the savior of black films? Lucas means well but he just doesn’t get it. Nor do the others who have rallied around Red Tails as if its fate determines the future of black film production. Let’s be clear, if Red Tails nosedives at the box office, it will not be because it has a predominantly black cast or lacked publicity. It will not be because we do not support films with “positive” black images. Nor will it be due to lack of interest in the courageous Tuskegee Airmen. It will be for one reason and one reason only – it is a bad film. Period. I must confess that it has been fun watching Lucas, who has profited greatly through the Hollywood system, recreate himself as an outsider for the purpose of promoting this film.
“Long-term power is more important than short-term money.” – Warrington Hudlin
Once upon a time, we had independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams who made films specifically for black audiences. Hollywood noticed their popularity and made their own, more expensive versions of black films. Black audiences, favoring the splashier productions, abandoned the independent films and have been at Hollywood’s mercy ever since. Hollywood is not changing, but we can by no longer settling for whatever is tossed our way. We can actively seek and support independently produced movies that are entertaining and offer a variety of images and stories.
Brothers and sisters, fret not. Starting next month, all six of the Star Wars movies will be theatrically re-released in 3-D. Whatever fate befalls Red Tails, George Lucas is going to be alright. What about us? When will we finally accept that it is a waste of time to solicit an industry that misrepresents us over and over again? Soon, I hope.
“The black woman is the mule of the world.” — Zora Neale Hurston
Being a black woman in America is to be rendered irrelevant, irreverent and invisible on a daily basis. Nowhere is this reflected more than on television and in the movies. We are often shown denigrating each other, raising hell, trying to snare a man à la Flava Flav, or vexing over the identity of the baby daddy. Other depictions include the jump-off, Mother Earth, confidante, tormentor, victim, and objects of ridicule by men in drag. The lack of non-stereotypical, relatable images is why the release of such films as Waiting to Exhale, For Colored Girls and, currently, The Help become major events for many of us. In groups we attend screenings and gather for live and online discussions. Some are just happy to see themselves, while others yearn for realistic, multi-dimensional characterizations that, unfortunately, are few and very far between. Perhaps there is an unspoken wish for inspirational and empowering images – a shero – instead of the usual cautionary tales. As for me, my expectations were tempered long ago.
Seeing the staged production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for the first time in the 1970s was an unforgettable experience. Blown away by the poetry, storytelling and the performances, I left the theatre feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. I doubted the play with its non-linear narrative could be successfully adapted to film. My skepticism quickly changed to a strong sense of foreboding when I learned that Tyler Perry would be at the helm. From the business perspective, I understand why Perry was selected. His track record at the box office is impressive and he has cultivated a loyal audience. However, Perry was totally inappropriate for the material. His forte is comedy – exaggerated, over-the-top comedy with stereotypes and clichés. His few attempts at drama have been heavy-handed and well-intentioned at best.
Perry’s interpretation of For Colored Girls left me emotionally drained and in need of a nap. The plotlines were thin and the characters were not well developed. There were some great performances, including standouts Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad. There were, however, missed dramatic opportunities. Yasmine/Yellow (Rose) was denied the chance to confront her rapist. Instead her “redemption” was to slap his cold, lifeless face as he laid in the morgue. The story would have been greatly enriched and more depth added to Yasmine’s character if we had followed her efforts to put the rapist behind bars. Instead a clumsily, contrived situation was introduced to wrap up her storyline. What a copout! In frustration I could only imagine how much more directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash would have brought to the production. I really appreciate August Wilson for insisting on director approval before his plays could be adapted to the big screen. Can you imagine Perry or one of the Wayans directing Fences?
In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, Bea (Claudette Colbert) gets rich from her maid’s (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe. Delilah (Beavers) wants no share of the profits and is content to continue as Bea’s maid. There is a scene where the two women turn in for the night. Bea ascends the stairs as Delilah descends to her room downstairs. That scene summed up the movie: Black people are happy in their place – tending to the needs of whites. That same sense of “selflessness” is present nearly 80 years later in The Help, which begins and ends with Aibileen (Viola Davis) comforting and encouraging white females.
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” – Aibileen
Like Delilah, Aibileen is greatly responsible for Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) success. When Skeeter is offered a new job in New York, Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) assuage Skeeter’s so-called guilt and encourage her to go – as if there was ever a possibility Skeeter wasn’t taking off. Meanwhile Aibileen is unemployed with little to no prospects, and Minny appears destined for a life of servitude with no hope of upward mobility. In my reimagined scene, Skeeter informs Aibileen and Minny about her job offer. She justifies her departure while Aibileen and Minny smile politely and exchange knowing looks. As Aibileen and Minny reflect on the injustice of being used once again, their words wish her well but their eyes do not. That would have been more realistic.
“I found God in myself and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange
I discovered Nothing But a Man in college. It is now one of my favorite films and the best onscreen depiction of a relationship between a black man and black woman and how it is impacted by racism, loss of income and a child from a previous relationship. Initially, most of my attention was drawn to the commanding presence of Ivan Dixon as Duff. I thought his wife Josie (Abbey Lincoln) was too agreeable. However, with maturity I began to appreciate Josie’s quiet strength and admired how she continued loving Duff, even when he didn’t love himself. In the midst of hate, violence and patriarchy, Josie did not allow herself to be defined by others’ fears, insecurities and ignorance. She retained a kind, loving nature and strong sense of self. Now that’s a shero! It was then that I began to recognize those qualities in many of the women around me like my mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends. This is why I don’t get upset or put much stock into how we’re portrayed and perceived anymore. People who want to believe the worst are going to do so regardless. I don’t need television and movies to affirm me. There are sheros all around me, and every now and then I see my shero smiling back at me in the mirror.
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“I believe in America. America has made my fortune…”
So begins one of the greatest films ever made, and my personal favorite, The Godfather. There are so many things to love about this movie. Puzo’s writing. Coppola’s interpretation. The sage counsel: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” I could go on and on. Nevertheless, if I had to choose the one thing that makes The Godfather a timeless classic, it would be how it dramatizes the double standards that exist within such cherished American institutions as the criminal justice system, politics, news and entertainment media, and organized religion.
American Ideal: The criminal justice system entitles all citizens to equal protection under the law regardless of race, creed or color.
“I went to the police, like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison – suspended sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.” –Amerigo Bonasera
Protection under the law is neither equal nor color-blind. According to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice, the rate of imprisonment for black males is 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males. Contributing factors include the ability to pay for high quality legal services and discrimination in prosecution, the rendering of verdicts and sentencing based on race and class. Unfortunately, the ironically named Amerigo Bonasera learned this lesson the hard way. Despite assimilating and defining himself as a “good American,” in the eyes of the court, Amerigo’s rights and personhood as an Italian immigrant and those of his daughter were deemed less valuable than those of the two white teens who brutalized her.
American Ideal: The police serve and protect law-abiding citizens and enforce the law.
“What’s the Turk paying you to set up my father, Captain?” – Michael Corleone
Indeed, there are corrupt police officers who abuse the law by participating in illegal activities for financial gain. There are also police officers who sometimes perceive criminality where there is none based on their limited perceptions and prejudices. As a result, law-abiding citizens have been assaulted and even killed. Unfortunately, there appears to be no end in sight to this injustice. Recently a Texas jury ruled in favor of a white police officer who shot an unarmed black man on New Year’s Eve, in front of his parents, after mistakenly assuming the man was driving a stolen car. Although Michael was a war hero and still a law-abiding citizen at this point in the story, the above inquiry was answered with a jaw-breaking punch and he was almost arrested. In this instance, “serve and protect” was reserved for mafia-connected drug dealers.
American Ideal: As elected representatives, politicians serve in the best interest of those they represent.
Michael: “My father’s no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.”
Kay: “You know how naive you sound?”
Kay: “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.”
Michael: “Oh, who’s being naïve, Kay?”
Some politicians put the interests of sponsors, lobbyists and corporations ahead of the needs of their constituents. These politicians set their priorities based on the financial benefits, be it from industries, such as oil and health care, or deep-pocketed individuals. Vito had quite a few politicians and judges on his payroll, which was evident by the gifts sent to his daughter on her wedding day and his assignment for the “Jew congressman in another district.”
American Ideal: The news is presented truthfully and objectively.
“That’s a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we, Tom? And they might like a story like that.” – Michael Corleone
The integrity of the news is often compromised by subjective reporting, propaganda and personal agendas. Public opinion is frequently manipulated by the suppression of information and contrasting viewpoints. The Corleone Family, through their contacts, reframed the news coverage of the police captain’s murder to shift the public’s attention from the policeman’s murder to police corruption.
American Ideal: Hollywood movies are harmless entertainment with fair and realistic portrayals of diverse characters.
Jack Woltz: “Johnny Fontane will never get that movie! I don’t care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!”
Tom Hagen: “I’m German-Irish.”
Jack Woltz: “Well, let me tell you something, my kraut-mick friend…”
Movies made within the Hollywood film industry sometimes reflect narrow worldviews. This often results in racial stereotypes and perpetuates a cycle of intolerance that is very harmful. The Jack Woltz character offers insights regarding this – from the racial slurs in his interaction with Tom to his life at home where his black servants are in the background, barely noticeable and insignificant. One could reasonably conclude that black characters and possibly other minorities in Woltz’s movies would be one-dimensional and insignificant to the plot. Ironically, Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Academy Award for The Godfather to protest the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. Brando stirred up more controversy in 1996 when he described Hollywood as being “run by Jews.” He went on to accuse those in charge of disparaging other racial groups. After much criticism and backlash, Brando apologized for his comments.
American Ideal: Those who observe and practice religious rituals lead godly lives.
“But I’m gonna wait – after the baptism. I’ve decided to be godfather to Connie’s baby. And then I’ll meet with Don Barzini and Tattaglia – all of the heads of the Five Families.” – Michael Corleone
Participating in religious rituals and attending church does not automatically indicate godliness and/or morality. Members of the clergy have been accused of stealing money, committing adultery, substance abuse, sexual molestation and domestic violence. For Michael, agreeing to be godfather for his nephew was not done out of love for his sister, it was a business transaction. Michael used his nephew’s baptism as a cover while the heads of the five families were murdered per his orders. This scene delivers one of the most effective montages in cinema history and establishes Michael’s cold-bloodedness, his point of no return. [A more in-depth analysis of Michael Corleone and his transformation from college-educated war hero to ruthless mafia don will follow at a later date.]
In spite of its imperfections, I still believe in America. I believe in the American ideals of freedom, truth and justice. While it’s true that The Godfather sheds light on some of America’s flaws and hypocrisies, accepting reality is a step in the right direction towards eventually achieving those ideals. Like Michael said to Vito, “We’ll get there…” One day and one person at a time, that is.