Monday, January 30, 2012

Red Tails puts Black women in the hurt locker: A womanist critique

Red Tails puts Black women in the hurt locker: A womanist critique
© E-K. Daufin, 2012

            Red Tails, the latest movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, that recently opened nationwide, offers a breath of fresh air for Black men who have been typically so poorly represented on the big and little screen (film and television respectively).  However, Red Tails throws Black women under the bus then stuffs us in the hurt locker, where we are still waiting to exhale…Ironically just in time for Black History Month when the national theme this year is, “Black Women in American History and Culture.”

            The “inspired by a true story” film has been criticized for being inaccurate in several, what to me seem, insignificant ways . . . such as the fantasy of certain flying maneuvers, not showing the airmen smoking cigarettes they all prolifically puffed, but showing another Tuskegee Airman saluting with a pipe in his mouth – a sign of disrespect that would not have been tolerated…Strange that I have yet to see any story about Red Tails that mentions the way Black women were whitewashed from all the airmen’s lives in the film, while a fictionalized romance between the most talented Black pilot and a White Italian woman seemed to absorb a good 20-percent of the longer-than-average 121 minutes of screen time.

            In fact a Montgomery Advertiser story on 93 year-old Herbert Carter, former Tuskegee Airman fighter pilot and aircraft maintenance supervisor, who still travels the country, “touting the accomplishments of his legendary unit,” says Carter thinks Red Tails producer George Lucas “fulfilled his promise to make a realistic movie.”

            The movie was not at all realistic about the role African American women, or White Italian women, played in the lives of our beloved Tuskegee Airman.  Some may blame this inaccuracy on the lack of flashbacks and the time frame in which this film’s story is set, which is after the men were stationed in war time Italy (not a lot of “sistahs’” running around there). Yet Lucas introduced the import of others who were not present in 1944 rural Italy in many ways.  However, none of those “others” were the airmen’s Black mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, fiancés or girlfriends.

 Lucas had airmen deeply contemplating, or flying off to their possible death with cherished photos of a fictional fiancé White woman, a really worshipped “Black Jesus,” or their State-side Black father in their hands or on their aircraft dashboards.   None of them had a photo of any Black woman, no matter how light-skinned, anywhere in the motion picture. 

Surviving Tuskegee Airman Carter says the movie is, “realistic,” but the character of Joe “Lightening” Little, who is rumored to be based on the light skinned aerial daredevil Carter himself, is depicted as a dark skinned womanizer.   The fictional character in the time of legal apartheid in the United States, must have sexually used many a Black woman back home, but he is turned into a self-sacrificing, loyal, marrying man in the film, only when he meets an Italian woman (“Sofia,” played by NCIS: Los Angeles actress Daniela Ruah, of Jewish Portuguese and Spanish descent).

In the film, actor David Oyelowo (who in real life is married to the White Jessica nee Watson since 1998), who plays “Lightening,” has known legions of Black women in the biblical fashion but exclaims that the White Sofia is, “the most beautiful woman” he has ever seen.  Even though the character Joe can’t speak Italian or Sofia English, he falls in love with her, can share emotionally with her, and by-passes buying smokes for himself so he can buy black market lingerie for her. Soon he falls to one knee and asks her to marry him…shortly before he is killed in action.  He dies speaking words of everlasting love to Sofia’s picture on the dashboard. This happens before tying the knot, though after having had sex with Sofia in the small sitting room of her parents’ home.

Another of the real surviving Tuskegee Airmen, James Al Sheppard, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that two things didn’t ring true about the wonderful Red Tails was that the actors in the film were much older and buffer than the young, skinny airmen really were and the story about the Black pilot who gets engaged to a local Italian girl was, “a lot of hocus pocus.”  Sheppard says the military strictly discouraged fraternization in Italy, that had until recently been fighting on the side of the Nazis, supposedly not because the airmen were Black but because they were Americans.

If any love story should have been told, mentioned or at least alluded to in Red Tails, it was Airman Herbert Carter’s storybook romance with Mildred “Mike” Hemmons, who also learned to fly under C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson (the chief instructor at Tuskegee and the man considered the father of Black aviation).  According to CNN, Mildred became the first female pilot of any race to join Alabama’s Civil Air Patrol Squadron in 1942, though racism kept her from ever flying under that banner.  The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) rejected Mildred during the war because she was Black.  Seventy years later the government declared Mildred a member and gave a medal inscribed, “The First Women in History to Fly America.”  Both graduated from Tuskegee University at a time when fewer than 1-percent of African Americans had a college education.

Herbert Carter has even admitted that Mildred was an even better pilot than he was.  She mentored many other African American female aviators and traveled the world with her husband speaking out for racial equality. Mildred couldn’t join her husband and lifelong love at George Lucas’ “Skywalker Ranch” to help on the fictional Red Tails.  She did consult extensively with Lucas’ staff on the also recently released History Channel companion documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen, Double Victory, so titled for the Tuskegee Airmen’s double victory of fighting oppression abroad and racism at home.

I join my African American female Facebook friends from around the country to praise Red Tails while at the same time bemoaning the fictionalized interracial romance that leaves Black women out in the cold.  We are the least likely race-gender group in American to be married to, or supported by, a partner of any race, in part because the media cripple the imagination of men and condition them to see Black women to be the least desirable of all women…When it just ain’t so. 

Even when the historical truth was of a Black man loving a Black woman, George Lucas chose not make it real for the millions who will see, have already seen his film. So far the film has grossed almost $35 million.  I hope Lucas makes back the $58 million he invested in the film out of his own pocket and then some, because I want other filmmakers and investors to back powerful, entertaining films about Black people.  I just want them, in all future films, to give Black women their due rather than leave us as daughters of the dust.

Those who are still criticizing the fictional Red Tails for inaccuracies that don’t matter much may be surprised to find that the actual incidents of the Black officers of the Tuskegee Airmen being expelled from an officer’s club, actually happened on U.S. soil not in Italy.  But it happened.  And an incredible Black fighter pilot loved, married, and lead a life of service with an astounding Black woman aviator.  Black women and girls who are bombarded by media images of romantic love that seem to leave them out, were again made invisible, not as beautiful, not as loving ,or as good as a White woman in Red Tails.  Lucas could have chosen to be a little more realistic about the Black women the Tuskegee Airmen loved.  But he didn’t.  And for that his tail ought to be whooped until it’s a brilliant crimson red…figuratively speaking that is.


  1. While I applaud your article for adding insight and accuracy, especially regarding the role of the Black woman pilot who was not included in the movie, I really think we need to stop taking filmmakers to task for every omission or fictionalization in movies about African Americans. They are MOVIES, designed to be consumed as entertainment, not history lessons, although that would be nice. Instead, we should be demanding that our educators teach the correct lessons to our children. We also should urge and support documentary filmmakers who wish to produce films that are historically accurate--but which would attract very few of US. We should show more appreciation for documentaries and literature that instruct and inform. We should NOT depend on feature films to do that. Munch the popcorn, watch the action and remember--it's entertainment.

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  3. (Just edited the comment I removed above and reposting. Sorry, moving too fast)...Ah but the sad truth is that most people take even "inspired" rather than "based" on a true story to be documentary. One of the best lawyers in AL with 3 Black foster daughters at the film said, "I'm so glad to know more of the history of the T.A.," after the film. So even the highly educated don't get that. It would have been nice if the filmmaker felt the need to add romance to spice things up that he would have had a Black man with a black woman, not another false glorification of the white woman as the best mate for everyone, especially a Black man. Or just leave the fake love story out. I'm concerned about the way media affect society. And wishing they don't, doesn't make it so. Thanks for your comments.