Thursday, January 26, 2012

Red Tails: Historic, Entertaining, Altogether Lacking Women...and Why that Is Okay

Today's guest post, written by Amber Leab, is a cross-post of a recent film review on Bitch Flicks.
Red Tails (2012)

I don’t see movies in the theatre very often. I know, for someone who co-founded and writes for a film site to say that is tantamount to treason. But, it’s true: there has to be a good reason for me to plunk down ten bucks (I’m a starving writer, friends!) to sit in a movie theatre and put up with texting & talking teens and coughing & sneezing strangers, when I’d usually rather be in the comfort of my own living room.

Here are some examples of what brings me to the theatre:

  • A movie is nominated for some serious awardage.
  • A movie tells a story about women (other than ladies getting hitched), or is told by women.
  • A movie’s cinematography demands the big-screen, public experience.
  • My movie dollars are political speech.

It’s for the last two reasons that I saw Red Tails last weekend in the theatre. First, a whiz-bang action movie involving fighter pilots in WWII is definitely more fun in the theatre than on my couch. It’s the kind of movie in which you want the crowd’s gasps and applause at moments of high tension and release. You want the visceral experience of flight and fear, loss and victory. Second, since Red Tails is the first big-budget Hollywood action movie featuring an all-Black cast—and is both written and directed by Black men—I wanted to help send movie executives a message. See, as I pointed out last week in a preview post, producer George Lucas couldn’t get any company to distribute it—they feared the film would have no foreign market (which is where Hollywood currently makes a huge portion of its revenues). It took Lucas decades to bring the film from idea to reality.

So, the story behind the film means a lot to me. In case I’m not perfectly clear, it’s a damn shame that in 2012 Hollywood is too fearful, too conservative, too—frankly—racist to embrace a film about bona fide World War II heroes who happen to be Black. And don't give me that argument that movies about the Tuskegee Airmen have already been made.

But on to the actual movie, and to a pleasant surprise.

Although “action” isn’t my favorite genre, I can say without reservation that I really enjoyed Red Tails. Even though there are no women in the movie, aside from an Italian love interest and a brief appearance by her mother (the two speak to each other in untranslated Italian, but it’s safe to assume they talk about a man, so the movie fails the Bechdel Test)—more on that later. The movie is exciting, entertaining, funny at moments, deeply sad at others, and altogether engaging. Plus, as it’s based on the real experience of the Tuskegee Airmen, you might learn something while being entertained (although U.S. moviegoers are often portrayed as only wanting the latter, I suspect most of us actually want both).

Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Major Emanuelle Stance, sans pipe
The style of the movie is an homage to ‘40s and ‘50s hokey action flicks, so you get some corny lines (and some hilarious white-dude dialogue--imagine in a robotic voice: “I sure hope we meet up with those Red Tails again.”), stock characters, clear lines between good and evil, and affected performances—especially from Cuba Gooding, Jr. and His Pipe. Even if you’re not familiar with the movies being imitated, nothing stands out as particularly peculiar and, compared with the majority of Hollywood action flicks, the movie—even though it’s about war and defeating the German military—is rather innocent. Innocent in the way that you kind of hope young men the world over will watch it, and pass on some others.

Now, let me say more about why I’m okay with this movie—and with writing about it on a site that focuses on women in media and almost daily reports on how woefully underrepresented women are—leaving out women. It’s true that some movies are about men—particularly films about men in historic wars who are in combat positions. That’s not to say that war doesn’t strongly impact women, but for the majority of the 20th century,combat was done by men. Do we already have a plethora of films about men in combat? Yes, of course. But there are still untold stories, and although anyone familiar with the history of Black men in the U.S. should know about the Tuskegee Airmen, the sad fact remains that it’s not an often-told story in the nation’s history. Further, including women in this movie (again, there is a female love interest who appears in a rather common and predictable storyline) would detract—and distract—from the central story. If a sequel is, in fact, made—and it takes place when the men return home and are treated as second-class citizens in the country they fought for—it should include women.

Further, if you compare this action movie with basically any other action movie in recent memory, one important element is missing: rampant misogyny. Perhaps the film would’ve been betraying its style if it included the kind of talk and images about women that are so common today, but in this regard it was completely refreshing. My feminist ire wasn’t raised a single time (though the romantic subplot might've drawn an eye roll). Perhaps that reveals more about me than the actual film, but the basic respect for women, even when they were almost completely absent, was a relief.

As happy as I am that Red Tails was made and did well its opening weekend (landing at the number 2 box office spot), it does bother me a bit that the historic element of the making of the film—with its Black writers, director, and stars—was all in the name of war propaganda. That’s not to belittle or reduce the accomplishments of the real-life Tuskegee Airmen. But the politics of it all reminds me a bit of The Hurt Locker. More specifically, director Katherine Bigelow was the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award (and only the fourth woman ever nominated), but she had to make a very masculine and male-centered war film to achieve that level of respect and acclaim. Would a movie about another subject receive the same amount of attention and box-office success as Red Tails?

cast of Red Tails
Red Tails is far from the first film to feature a Black cast, but as someone on Twitter asked us, is it the first all-Black film that white people care about? In other words, we as a culture are very good at making period pieces and then looking at them, with self-righteousness, shaking our heads at how foolish and awful people were back then, and simultaneously congratulating ourselves for being so much better. But, more often than not, “back then” looks more like “present day” than most of us want to admit. (One recent outrageous example: in Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina primary victory speech last weekend, one crowd member reportedly shouts “String him up!” in reference to our current U.S. President.)

We should absolutely honor the heroes of our past, like the Tuskegee Airmen, but let’s not forget heroes like them exist today and have to face different but still very real demons when they come home. I, for one, would like to see more of those movies.

Rotten Tomatoes ranks Red Tails as Rotten, with a 33% rating (although the audience rating is a positive 73%). What did you think of the movie?

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