Flying in Rarified Air

Dexter Blackman, assistant professor of history, studies the history of race relations in the United States.

“Red Tails,” a George Lucas film production, tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black World War II fighter pilot squad. The film opened on Jan. 20 and brought in more than $19 million at the box office in its opening weekend. We sat down with Dexter Blackman, assistant professor of history, to discuss the historical accuracy of the film and the politics of making an action movie with an all-black cast in Hollywood. Blackman was interviewed by Fred Puza.

Does the story of the Tuskegee Airmen fall within your historical expertise?
Yes, I study African American history, particularly of the 20th century, as well as 20th century American history generally.

All in all, was the film a fair representation of the actual events?
I think so. The Tuskegee Airmen trained, but waited a long time to see combat action. They believed that if they performed well that would garner blacks in the military, as well as in society, a greater measure of respect. They were anxious to prove themselves, and while they waited for action, they feared that as a combat unit they would be dismantled. I think the film demonstrates their anxiousness, as well as some of the racial politics they confronted.

The civil rights movement began to heat up soon after World War II. Did the experience of African Americans serving in the war have anything to do with the eruption of the civil rights movement?
Within World War II, there were always African-Americans fighting for their equality. The contradiction of fighting fascism and Aryanism in Europe certainly brought urgency to the fight against Jim Crow and institutional racism in the United States.

Sometimes it seems that the film industry only makes films with mostly African American casts if the characters are sacrificing their lives in military service to the country or if the film stars Denzel Washington or Will Smith. Would you agree and why do you think that’s the case?
I do think films with predominantly black casts are hard to make in Hollywood, because the perception is that those movies will only appeal to a limited audience. They have to be wrapped in a package in which blacks are extremely patriotic or presented in a way that it won’t be offensive to many white sensibilities. It takes either a black filmmaker who has some sort of a track record or it takes a risk-taker like George Lucas.

There are only a few of the Tuskegee Airmen still living today. How do you think they reacted to seeing this film?
I think they’re extremely proud because we’re always proud of our veterans. In so many ways, you could say they were fighting two wars. They were fighting the actual war, and they were fighting against black inequality. They must feel proud of what they were able to contribute to the war but also proud of what they were able to represent to black Americans.

George Lucas said he wanted to make an inspirational film for teenage boys that showed heroes, not victims. Did he accomplish his goal?
If that was his goal, maybe he did accomplish it. But that is not necessarily the solution for a lot of the problems that black youth face. Certainly they should have role models, but there is still a big socio-economic gap. If you don’t create the same opportunities or if you don’t get the same education, you can only expect certain results. That’s reality.

This is one of the first all-black action movies ever made. Do you consider it a game-changer for American audiences and will it lead to more movies of this kind being made?
That is a very good question. It’s very problematic. They’re still going to have to follow a certain story line. We will still see patriotic black men who are “proving” themselves to a wider America. You can’t make a movie about the Black Panthers because while they were certainly into action, they will certainly not be construed as patriotic. Remember, blaxploitation movies were full of action, but they were not a huge mainstream phenomenon beyond a short period of time in the ’70s.

What conversations about race relations today does the story open up?
The best conversation it can open up is about ways that African-Americans seek advancement. The Tuskegee airmen really thought that by putting up with discrimination they were advancing African-Americans because they were demonstrating how capable African-Americans were. And that remains the dominant means of racial advancement or at least that’s what people think should be the dominant means. [We have to] ask ourselves, is that the way we go forward in trying to continue to bring about and foster racial equality?


Thu, 02/09/2012 - 13:28

I haven't seen the film, but I have met several of the Tuskegee Airman at the annual Military Gala and Banquet in Branson, Mo. I was thrilled to meet those men who were part of U.S. military air history. Unfortunately, each year there have been fewer Tuskeegee Airman, due to their deaths. In fact, only two were there at the last one I attended.

It made me remember my days at Loyola when we refused to play Texas Western (now the University of Texas, El Paso) in a football game because they would not allow our black players to compete. I'll never forget being a part of a candlelight protest against that bigoted policy I'm also proud to remember that Loyola students were early participants in the fight against segregation.

We wrote about the university's decision to refuse to play under those conditions in a story titled "No One Left Behind" (LMU Magazine, Summer 2010) —The Editor

Thu, 02/09/2012 - 17:43


I am an LMU alum of the School of Film and T.V. and I am also a professor of film production here in Atlanta, Georgia. Although Prof. Blackman gives a good interview, you have overlooked some black professors and alumni that I KNOW still live in the LA area and/or work at the LMU School of Film and TV. They could have given a much deeper, informed opinion on blacks and the film industry! I know this because some of these people were my instructors!

For example, Prof. Steve Duncan not only teaches film classes there BUT he is also a veteran of the Vietnam War and a Hollywood insider! Prof. Charles Swanson did his undergrad work at Morehouse College, a historically black college here in Atlanta, his grad work at LMU and once again he is an excellent working film maker right there on campus (he's a director of photography). Ramona Wright, while she was never a film school professor, she DID graduate from LMU's undergrad school of film and ended up as a professor at LMU. She is VERY active in the black film community there in LA--she even chaired a mentoring department in Film Independent, one of the most productive indie film organizations in the country! ANY of these people would have been a better choice for this interview.

Blackman knows the history, but not the film industry--and NO, "Red Tails" was NOT the first all-Black action film cast (it's really not even classified as an action film by critics and scholars outside of Fandango! "Cowboys and Aliens" is an action film!! Not only was the cast NOT all black (Bryan Cranston and Gerald McRainey did have a few lines I seem to recall...) but another film about black soldiers in World War Two with a largely black cast was "Miracle at St. Anna" by Spike Lee. "Glory" was about black soldiers in the Civil War. Denzel got his first Academy Award for it (Best Supporting Actor). And, yes, there HAS been a film on the Black Panthers called "Panther" (1995), It was directed by Mario Van Peebles, the son of Melvin Van Peebles, the father of the "Blaxploitation" movement in film that you mentioned. Melvin wrote the screenplay.

The issue isn't that black historical films with positive black images are not being made--it's just that NOT ENOUGH of them are being made with enough frequency, preferably by people of color (an informed perspective). When they are made, they are not marketed or distributed like the other mainstream films and too often die in obscurity. Any film professor or informed film maker could have told you this.

This is not even the first film on the Tuskegee Airmen. Laurence Fishburne and Mekhi Phifer starred in a mid-'90s film called "The Tuskegee Airmen," which saw release as an HBO made-for-TV film and later a DVD release. By all accounts of most film critics and professionals who actually saw the two films (and I researched many of them), the Fishburne film version was far superior to "Red Tails" in every way except special effects. I saw "Red Tails" multiple times and encourage others to do the same. It is a positive film with positive black images--something we need more of. "Red Tails" is a modern doorway film because in a "Tyler Perry world," we haven't seen a film like this in mainstream Hollywood a while, but please get the facts straight! And "Blaxploitation films" enjoyed an IMMENSE degree of popularity in the 70's (not just in the revivalist 90's). "Sweet Sweetback's Badasss Song," "Black Caeser," "Superfly," "Shaft," "Dolemite"--the list goes on and on and influenced many of today's film giants--like Quentin Tarantino!

Back to my issue...I last visited the campus a year ago, so I don't know who may have come in the last year, but COME ON, PEOPLE!!! One thing that makes our skin crawl as film makers is when someone who is NOT a film maker is interviewed on a film topic! You'd never interview someone in the engineering department to give insight on a new medical advancement! Sure, the Tuskegee Airmen are historical figures and within Prof. Blackman's area of expertise, but the article is framed more in context of talking about the movie "Red Tails" and other black films in a modern Hollywood. While Blackman's ideas are well-intended and appreciated, he can't be speaking from film industry experience (at least not in the way he was presented). We love Prof. Blackman, but please find a black film professor to interview on your film topics! Trust me, there several great ones there right on campus!

Dexter Blackman, assistant professor of history, responds:
First, let me agree that Professors Duncan and Swanson and Ms. Wright are very knowledgeable persons and fine colleagues. I have learned a lot from all three.

Secondly, I take issue with your mischaracterization of the interview and my responses. Neither characterized the movie as the first black action film, the first on the Tuskegee Airman, or an all black film, as you suggest. And while I think “positive” is a very subjective term in the eye of the beholder, neither did I suggest that there were not any “positive” films made about blacks. Additionally, neither suggested that "Red Tails" was a film that wasn’t worth viewing or that Blaxploitation films did not have a legacy. Your criticisms, based on mischaracterization, along with the rest of your comments lead me to believe that the main issue is not so much my qualifications and responses, but that you would have preferred that someone else be interviewed. That’s your prerogative. I appreciate the “love” you have for Dr. Blackman, even though we have never met and you are unaware of just what my qualifications are. But I hope that in the future you will show that love by not distorting my statements and those of others in making your point. Lastly, I hope to be available on your next trip to LMU.

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