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The Cult of Blackness: Racial Responsibility and Red Tails

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Last week Anthony Hemingway's Red Tails, a Black action film inspired by the Tuskegee Airman that was written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder and produced by George Lucas, opened to sell out audiences across the United States. Despite less than stellar reviews Red Tails surpassed its initial financial goals and raked in nearly 20 million dollars during opening weekend. With a cast that looks at times like a reunion for HBO's hit show The Wire, the colorful World War II film achieved this success in part because of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen who asked folks to support the film and Lucas who, in a promotional interview on John Stewart's The Daily Show, stated that Hollywood refused to fund his 23 year in the making film "because it's an all Black movie. There's no major White roles in it at all [sic]. It's one of the first all Black action pictures ever made."

Lucas' claim highlighted Hollywood's troubling racial practices. Though, given that D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation as Hollywood's "master text" decided long ago the limited roles Black people are to play in the general pop cultural imagination, it should come as no surprise that the entertainment industry is at best ill-equipped to deal with the portrayal of Black people and at worst racist. But more than pointing out Hollywood's racial issues, I wish to point out how Lucas' claim charged Black communities in way that compelled millions of Black bloggers, Black Facebook users, Black tweeters, and Black conservationists to take to the world and the world wide web, urging all Black people to support the Black movie Hollywood would not. I have no problem with folks asking me to support the film, especially given the politics behind this particular request. I do, however, take great issue with those who question my Blackness and my race loyalty when I tell them I refuse to see the movie just because I am Black. Given the large number of friends and family members who would not stop telling me how wrong I was/am for not buying a ticket during opening weekend, it is/was hard not to feel racially bullied by, dare I say, the cult of Blackness.

Let me make it very clear: I am not dissing Red Tails in any way, nor am I telling people to not view the film. Do whatever you want. I am illustrating how flawed the Black-people-should-support-Black-films logic is, and I am calling out the cult of Blackness that questions Black folks' loyalty and very Blackness if they choose not to strategically essentialize around a given movement, even if it is only a cinematic one. I mean, if all Black-people-should-support-Black-films, then we should also pay for all Tyler Perry movies, Soul Plane, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Kazaam, Glitter, The Cookout, Who's Your Caddy, Norbit, Meet Dave, or any those made for TV BET movies too.

And, do not even begin to tell me the difference between Hemingway's film and those I just listed are, as one of my friends told me, "the difference between good and bad [or positive and negative] movies." As I argued in a short essay, "'Right Thru Me': Authenticity, Performance, and the Nicki Minaj Hate," the terms good and bad often stifle serious critical conversation about the implications of Black pop culture. Even more, they do very "little to explain [things like] how violent rap lyrics are used as justification for unfair policing practices in Black communities, how literature and music is often used as a means for many Black people to enter into a political arena that historically denied us access," or even the issues with using someone's commitment to a movie as a some kind of Black barometer. Even more, that millions of people both love and hate Tyler Perry's work is evidence that terms like bad and good are extremely relative.

Even still, I truly understand the politics behind voting with our dollars, and voting for movies that are not stocked with characters who are direct descendants of minstrel figures. But, shouldn't I be the one who gets to decide where my monetary vote goes without the cult of Blackness shaming out of the Black box? Even after I explained to some that I was extremely busy last weekend, too busy to make time for what Lucas described as an intentionally "corny" movie, and save for my Chipotle burritos I have a strict anti-corn policy, far too many people responded as if I was not holding up my end of Black social contract by not monetarily showing Hollywood the power of Black dollars.

Hollywood and, more generally, big business are not unsure as to whether or not Black people will spend money, ask Run-DMC about Adidas for an answer to that. Rather, it seems to me the concern is whether other groups will buy into an all Black action movie. In so saying, it seems to me the better political move is to gather support from as many people as possible. That, and/or support alternative films that exist outside of Hollywood's purview. And, I cannot begin to speak about my frustration with those who are argue for either Pariah or Red Tails as if I cannot see both, or as if choosing one is not counterproductive to larger goal of illustrating Black purchasing power.

The cult of Blackness polices and shames Black republicans for their voting crimes, those sacrilegious folks who critique Saint Cosby's 1980s TV family, and, above all, the cult of Blackness looks at Black atheists, agnostics, and gnostics as if they are the only naked people in the room. I, however, am tired of feeling like the only naked person in the room for not seeing Red Tails, and I am even more tired of being racially bullied whenever I go against the racial grain.