The new movie, Red Tails, tells the story of the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces. The movie describes the overwhelming adversity that African Americans endured in the United States Military and provides insight into the unfounded perceptions of the intellectual capabilities of people of color. The movie opens with a powerful quote from a 1925 U.S. Military study about the abilities of the airmen, stating that "Blacks are mentally inferior and by nature subservient, and thus are unfit for combat".
Prior to the movie even being made, the producer, George Lucas, hit several roadblocks in trying to get a major movie studio to invest in the film. In many ways, the story of the Tuskegee airmen and their challenges in getting support from a military that did not believe in them, were analogous to the challenges of trying to get a movie funded when those who had the power to support the film did not believe in the project because of its all-Black cast.
The movie, after exceeding expectations and ranking second in box office sales on its opening weekend, seems like vindication for George Lucas and all those who were deeply moved by the challenges he had with telling the tale of American heroes whose story is as inspiring as it is necessary to be told.
Today, as the movie continues to garner attention, and the victory of its success at the box office inspires and motivates more people to watch the film, there are lessons to be garnered from not only the historically based movie, but its contemporary backdrop. There is much to consider in regards to the reactions of different communities to the movie, the critics responses to it, the audiences interpretations of its purpose, and most importantly, how it may be used as a way to teach lessons about issues that we do not always get the opportunity to interrogate.
As movements in schools to bring youth to theaters to watch it, Red Tails has gained a groundswell of support amongst African-American scholars, writers, and politicians. It's important for us to not only watch the movie to support the all-black cast, but for the important discussions the film can inspire. Red Tails give us an opportunity to connect the historic events depicted in the movie to our lives today, and to the events that are currently unfolding before us.
Red Tails, with its success at the box office, majority African-American cast and white main funder, invites a powerful conversation about race, access, allies, solidarity, grassroots movements, cooption, and history that all Americans should be engaged in.
For parents and educators, it is important to create opportunities for youth to at least begin conversations about these issues. Taking your children or your class to see Red Tails has to be more than just supporting a "black" movie, and watching black pilots in cool airplane scenes. It has to be more than a visual that goes along with a line or two in a history textbook. Educators can use this movie as an entry point for deeper conversations.
1) Discuss the persistence of race issues: How history repeats itself, and how it can be overcome
One of the most powerful moments in the movie was the segregation of the African-American and white soldiers, the conditions of the equipment they each had to complete their tasks, and the perception of the intellectual ability of the airmen despite the fact that they had limited resources and opportunities to prove themselves. The connections between this historical fact and the realities of urban schools today, is worth exploring with youth. Schools today, are highly segregated, with urban low-income schools being populated by mostly African-American and Latino youth. Segregated barracks are no different than segregated schools. Just as the Tuskegee Airmen pilots were given old planes and military tasks that had very low expectations, youth in urban schools have limited resources, and very low educational expectations.
When youth become aware of the similarities between their current experiences, and those that are seemingly historical and far removed from their reality, they are motivated to create historic moments in their everyday lives, and create their own "Red Tail" moments in schools.
2) Discuss how fulfilling your potential requires persistence and perseverance
One of the most powerful themes from the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the creation of the movie Red Tails is the persistence of the airmen and the movie producers in fulfilling their potential. Youth should be introduced to the challenges of making the movie, and can be asked to specify what obstacles specific characters in the movie had to overcome, and in what ways were the characters persistent in their action to overcome them and achieve their larger mission. In addition to asking youth to identify characters and moments in the movie, it is important to talk to them about the challenges in their own lives, and how they may overcome them to fulfill their potential.
3) Discuss what's missing in the story
While I appreciated the focus on the characters that were explored in the movie, and do understand the limitations of exploring a story with much nuance in a 2 hour time span, a powerful exercise is for youth to explore what's missing form the story of the airmen, and what they thought was not well represented. Much more important than asking youth to blindly ingest what is given to them, is asking them to think deeply about how they could/would improve the story that was told. Questions about the absence of women in the movie, the experiences of the airmen when they returned to the United States, and where they are now may begin to emerge, and become the entry point to deeper conversations.
4) Discuss violence, war, and brutality
While the movie is intended to be historically accurate, and in some cases, the vivid descriptions of the loss of life or the quest to take life was a part of the experiences of the airmen, it is important to have a dialogue about it, and what its implications are. Youth have to be asked why the fight scenes were so gruesome, what the causes for the war were, and how war is not a viable option for dealing with differences. Failing to address these issues leads to a blind acceptance of the violence, and an unofficial acceptance of it.
5) Place the movie in context
While the creation of this movie is significant, it is just one movie about a powerful group of African-American men whose story has been captured on film before. This story is in documentaries, books, encyclopedias, and museums. Any good parent or educator realizes that a more robust description of the Tuskegee Airmen exists, and that this movie is just one of them. As we all run to the theater and support the actors, we are also supporting the movies funder and producer. Therefore, as we push to see it, let us keep some balance in our expectations, and our support, and ensure that others who tell this powerful story are supported in their efforts as well.