Red Tails (the movie) and Racism

The famous moviemaker, George Lucas, has reported he could not get mainstream Hollywood studios to provide funding for his new movie, just out this weekend, called Red Tails. It deals with the famous African American fighter pilots in World War II, who went up against not only the Axis powers but also white racism throughout the U.S. military.

On The Daily Show, Lucas said the reason the movie could not get outside funding (he funded it himself) was contemporary white racism:

“This has been held up for release . . . since it was shot, I’ve been trying to get released ever since . . . . It’s because it’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all . . . .I showed it to all of them and they said no. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.”

A major New York Times story on the movie starts this way:

This was a new feeling for George Lucas. He made a movie about a plucky band of freedom fighters who battle an evil empire — a movie loaded with special effects like no one had seen before. Then he showed it to executives from all the Hollywood studios. And every one of them said, “Nope.” One studio’s executives didn’t even show up for the screening. “Isn’t this their job?”

Significantly, the rest of this article seems much more interested in Lucas, his older movies and lifestyle, and does not give us much more information on the funding racism, or indeed on the Tuskegee airmen themselves.

The movie features African American actors Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Terrence Howard, and is directed by African American director, Anthony Hemingway, something very rare for these blockbuster movies. Significantly, the movie is extremely rare in not having a central white figure who is key or saves the day, called the “white savior” phenomenon by scholars like Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon.

One news report at HuffingtonPost also noted that Lucas was afraid that if the movie did not do well, then it would affect other movies centered on black issues with numerous central black actors:

I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [ … $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 . . . . It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold.

Over at a new Tuskegee Airmen website, funded in part by a Lucas organization, we have this summary of who the “Tuskegee Airmen” were. They were

all who were involved in the so-called “Tuskegee Experience,” the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.

And the website is set up for

Honoring the accomplishments and perpetuating the history of African-Americans who participated in air crew, ground crew and operations support training in the Army Air Corps during WWII.

It is getting mostly poor mainstream reviews, as one can see from its 33 percent rating of the mostly white movie critics at rottentomatoes:

Despite a worthy fact-based story and obvious good intentions, Red Tails suffers from one-dimensional characters, corny dialogue, and heaps of clichés.

Apparently (I have not seen it yet) it also suffers from not digging enough into the structural racism that kept virtually all African Americans in the service then (and for many years after) in subordinated jobs in the military. Few got even the opportunities of the Red Tails. (For another take on this, see here.)

Yet also on the rottentomatoes website, the movie gets an 81 percent rating from the viewing public so far–One of the most dramatic critic-viewers differences ever seen at that reviewing website. If you go to see the movie, let us know your reaction to it, and especially how it deals with white racism in the military and World War II era.


  1. marcg

    Interesting write up. I’ve had more than a few folks tell me that I MUST go and see Red Tails even if only to ensure it does well and leaves the door open for more Black blockbuster films. This seems illogical. If the society is so racist as to not go and see a film because it lacks the white key figure they require, will this same population be tricked into liking Black figures simply because Black America pushes the box office of Red Tails as high as we can? I don’t follow the logic.

    Will people who won’t see this film because they require White central figures to be interested have a change of heart if this film has a bigger than usual box office for a Black casted film? Why would that be?

    • I just saw this this weekend, and it must be watched from the point of view of “will it engage young people” in new ways. I believe that watching it from purely an artistic point of view as many critics have done demonstrates their artisitc elitism and when applicable, their white privilege. That is, the privilege to have so many positive depictions of white youth that it really has no social significance whether the next film is positive or negative.

      While I thought that more could be done to show how hard the Tuskegee airmen had to work before getting accepted, it was basically an action movie wrapped in important history. From a historical POV it wasn’t nearly as good as “The Great Debaters”, but it was light years better than “Transformers 2” which was awful and still raked in insane amounts of dollars.

      marcg, I respectfully disagree. Before white masses are convinced to go see black-led blockbusters, Hollywood will only act when they see proof of returns — any returns. Every turn in media history started with a movie or two which changed Hollywood thinking. I think that All Americans who want to challenge media racism should see this movie regardless of whether it is the content they prefer. This is historically logical.

  2. Blaque Swan

    I haven’t seen the movie, either (obviously). But the documentary that aired on the History Channel was really, really informantive and enlightening. The situation was worse than even I had imagined – and you know I already thought it was hell.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    Too, George Lucas is married to his beautiful Black wife, Mellody Hobson. I would think that his experiences with racism, coupled with direct more intimate insights and feedback from Black settings and viewpoints, have played a key role in him seeing the need for movies with all Black cast members that more accurately reflect a more honest history, and from their understanding, rather than those that impose and narrate the dominant racist viewpoint on the situations and experiences in history groups of color endured. I hope this movie does have more success than the racist industry predicts and it helps strengthen the overall foundation of the Black film industry.

    While it is predicted to not do so well in the U.S., I wonder how it will do overseas–if it will be more successful overseas. It seems that things that don’t flourish here in the U.S., due to racism and other prejudices, often do better overseas–at least in the music industry…and I am thinking of some human rights books even that had little attention in the U.S., but did well in Europe and other nations. Because I’m not into films and movies, etc., I don’t know if there is a similar trend with films. Either way, I hope the film does become a success, both here and overseas and helps fuel the trend of marketing movies that are cast with all members of marginal groups, reflecting their voices and viewpoints as accurately as possible…within Hollywood…. It would be a nice shift in popular culture and it would certainly overall be good for society in general.

    • Nicthommi

      George Lucas and Melody Hobson are a couple but they aren’t married nor do they cohabitate. She lives in Chicago and he lives in California. That doesn’t diminish the fact that they have been a couple for several years, but she’s not his wife, and I’ll also say that being in a relationship with a black woman doesn’t somehow give him extra special insight into racism against black people. It seems as if his interest in this project predates knowing her, but it seems like a stretch to assume that sharing a bed with a black person gives him a lot more insight into things.

      I keep reading people who describe her as his wife and I don’t really get why it’s just a common mistake. Or why people think that being in a relationship with a black person some how mitigates white privilege or makes people more aware of what black people go through.

      • Seattle in Texas

        They are not married–I read a while ago that they’d been dating since 2006 and got married in 2010 or so? And have seen them presented as a couple and never questioned it since. Hollywood gossip, turned to rumors, turned to…whatever. But either way, they make a great couple.

        I’m not sure how you read my words and maybe you read them just as they are. But I do think inter-racial dating and other relationships do give people on the privileged end insights and some levels of understandings they other would not, and could not get, from remaining within their own groups, or by merely reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and so forth. In terms of having the same level of understanding, I don’t think that’s ever possible. But more awareness that leads to a different way of viewing the world, etc.? Sure. If that weren’t the case, there would have never been people of privileged groups who fought against various types of oppressions and inequalities, including some, even dying. If that weren’t the case, then there would be no need for whites and/or others being involved with antiracist causes and so on.

        I’m thinking the term “intimate” may have come across not the way I meant? By intimate, I meant intimate–a type of closeness that comes from, can only come from, actually “knowing” others and developing feelings that are deeper than other basic relationships–perhaps many acquaintance relationships, shallow friendships, professional relationships, and even, familial relationships in some cases, etc. Intimacy does not mean sexually and is not in anyway limited to only male/female relations. There can be intimate relationships with no sexuality, and sexual relationships with no intimacy–then there can be those with both or what have you. I think intimacy can lead people in dominant and/or privileged positions to develop insights and understandings they would not have, and could not have had, otherwise, whether it be close friends, dating relationships, marriages, or say parents of biracial children who were conceived out of a purely sexual relations that had no intimacy whatsoever, and so on.

        With the case of George Lucas, I’m sure he was aware of racism prior, racism in the industry, the need to give actors of colors more important roles and leading roles, and so on. But I’m not sure that without his own experiences in having deeper relationships, in this case, Blacks, he would not have on his own, realized the need and importance of making films that have all Black actors with no white heroes, etc. And even if that may have crossed his mind at various points in time, I don’t think without his experiences, he would have had the drive to fund this project on his own and push it against the grain within the racist industry.

        Anyway, those are just my thoughts and thank you for the clarification on the marriage thing–I don’t keep up with all the Hollywood stuff at all…or try not too, but still come across stuff like this–rumors I guess(?), which reminds me of why I generally ignore it all in the first place

        • Nicthommi

          I’m aware of the different kinds of intimacy and maybe I didn’t say it here (have commented on this idea that Lucas gets it in other spaces) but he MIGHT get it more than a man who doesn’t have a black partner and he MIGHT NOT. He might, he might not, but the idea of the movie occurred before he had a black girlfriend. He might have tried, but not necessarily succeeded.

          I’m aware of the various instances of intimacy but having many, many friends at this point who are married to white men, the things that they do and do not share regarding race and racism vary greatly. And while I don’t think any of my friends’ husbands are clueless racists, there are WOC who marry men who are hopelessly ignorant, unwilling to learn, and the women are too scared or afraid of being alone to challenge those notions, or in some cases are more than happy to be viewed as the “exception” to the rule. So I know enough not to “assume” anyone is enlightened and open-minded just for marrying someone who is a different color than him.

          One thing I have noticed is that my friends do make attempts to create spaces or be part of black groups that don’t always include their non-black husbands, b/c again, I think that sometimes they need to be able to talk to people who have LIVED it.

          I think many of us have experienced the white person who “questions” and tries to explain away the challenges that we face in our lives.

          In this way, I think that the fact that Hobson and Lucas aren’t married or cohabiting could make a difference in terms of what they or don’t share. Also, we don’t really know what Hobson’s views are on race or racism, and I’ve never noticed her to be part of the circuit of prominent black speakers who touches on these topics. Some people do well and are content to leave it at that.

          And it’s hardly Hollywood gossip that they are dating…I knew that without reading gossip mags and it was mentioned prominently in the NY Times profile of Lucas, which is where I got the information I relayed to you(that they don’t live in the same state). They aren’t exactly party people or gossip worthy really. A 70 year old man and his banker girlfriend? Not exactly tabloid stuff. They have been to the White House together, and I’ve seen those pictures as well, again, not exactly in the National Enquirer.


  1. Tuskegee Airmen Pt. II | Thoughts From the Other Side of the Road

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