Flying in Rarified Air
Dexter Blackman, assistant professor of history, studies the history of race relations in the United States.
Published: February 9, 2012
“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?