I got the memo about supporting Red Tails its opening weekend by the All Black Everything Coalition. I heeded the call. I embarrassed my husband by talking to the screen like the characters could hear me. I laughed at the awkwardness that was Ne-Yo’s ‘performing voice.’ But I was disconnected from the film. By no means am I suggesting that the narratives of the Tuskegee Airmen are not crucial enough to be brought to the movie screen – HBO’s 1995 retelling of The Tuskegee Airmen was incredibly dope – but something about this rendition irked, poked, and prodded my spirit. I sighed as I walked out the theatre to the applause of fellow moviegoers. Applause after a movie? That only happens with Tyler Perry or Idris Elba.
After engaging some twittering and chattering with hubby, colleagues, and friends, I started to formulate my concerns. The expectation and responsibility I placed on Red Tails, I guess, was too heavy, burdening the film to historicize the time period while situating it in a trajectory of (public) black protest and performance all too unfamiliar in this current cycle of cultural appropriation. Particularly peculiar about Red Tails’ storyline was the teetering performance of exaggerated and historic depictions of the airmen’s blackness. Perhaps some of that awkwardness in narration can be attributed to Aaron McGruder, a late add to the writing roster for the film. I instantly made a mental footnote of McGruder’s allusions to the Tuskegee Airmen in his “Wingmen” episode from The Boondocks. I could probably bet money that the hyped up presence of “Black Jesus” had something to do with McGruder as well as the banter between the men during down time between missions.
These performances awkwardly pivot upon placed markers of trauma and humor to accentuate the displacement of black masculinity in a deemed impenetrably white patriarchal space guised as the military. Aside from surface definitions of displacement – the abroad deployment in a foreign country – the more subtle, irksome themes of displacement dominate much of the film. The Red Tails’ home base, for example, is raggedy, run down, and secondhand. It paralleled the German prison of war camp also featured in the film. These types of markers, visual and sonic, engage the audience in a terse dance of history and entertainment, too easily dismissing the political and cultural agency of that historical moment with the murkiness and nonchalance of this one.
Yet it is the love affair between airman Joe “Lightning” Little and an Italian woman named Sophia that best bridges beliefs of a current postracial society with the lacking discourse available to articulate its existence. The lovers, separated by a language barrier, initially represent the “love is universal (language)” trope that would have, in any other circumstance, made Red Tails ‘chick flick’ approved. But the characters’ literal and figurative engagement within a recognizable racial discourse is unavailable in the historic moment represented and now. The relationship exists between a linguistic sense of displacement and its intersection with a similar 21st century lack of discourse where race and identity politics cannot be publicly acknowledged and engaged.
Still, the sonic scripting of black masculinity in the film picked my interest most. Sound’s role in framing the airmen’s masculinity teased out ways in which sound as an alternative lens of analysis provides room for the complexities of black men’s humanity to breathe. While the film left much to be desired from this perspective, sound – voices, music, sound effects – or the lack thereof enforced and manipulated black masculinity throughout the film. The one recording I did recognize, The Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” encompassed the war effort and white American masculinity in general more so than contextualizing the airmen within that effort. While the airmen were on their own base, similar music played in the background, catching my attention because I was curious why “race music” was sorely lacking. The only ‘black’ music I heard came from the fiddling of a guitar by Ne-Yo’s character, representing a culturally and sonically recognizable blues aesthetic while acknowledging his own background as a singer and songwriter.
Other sonic signifiers like cadence (especially Terence Howard’s lines) and diction spoke to an (over) extended black identity tethered to an essentialized expectation of what black sounds like. Perhaps this was most represented by the exaggeration of southern accents by many of the characters. The presence of southern memes of black identity nod toward Tuskegee’s historical and cultural significance to the African American community while simultaneously rehashing stereotypical misrepresentations of southern blackness and culture (again, Black Jesus).
Considering the outpour of support for Red Tails opening weekend, I’m curious about how not only the film but the film’s publicity can represent a 21st century notch for black protest. Perhaps purchasing power in Red Tails tickets can be seen as a form of resistance through buying power and capitalistic privilege.
Still, the very big and very white elephant in the room is George Lucas, who fronted approximately 53 million dollars for the film’s production. I can’t help but think about how Lucas embodies a similar white patron aesthetic like that from the Harlem Renaissance. While the cast and writer Anthony Hemingway are black, Lucas is, for the purpose of this film, black affiliated. He brings his own racial and cultural baggage – Jar Jar Binks, anyone? – and lends his brand, not the historical relevance of the Tuskegee Airmen, to insists the film’s legitimacy to a nonblack audience. While folks scream and holla about Red Tails as a blockbuster black film, it was still financed and brought to fruition by a white man. As abrasive as that sounds, the dollar screams louder than black cultural pride here. That is problematic, by the way.
The danger becomes bullying Red Tails into a messianic black film that delivers African American images and representations from their current path. While Red Tails certainly marks an effort to gain ground in supporting African American film, it does not carry enough weight to resuscitate (instate?) the black political and cultural agency that its publicity pushes in order to sell tickets. Red Tails needs to be put into conversation with similar era-framed movies like Spike Lee’s Miracle at Saint Ana that disappeared quicker than a straight to DVD movie. These types of conversations are important and necessary in order to appreciate and deconstruct the box mass consumed black media currently inhabits.