Black at the Movies – Critical Lessons from Red Tails and Pariah

It is rare that we get a movie featuring a predominantly African-American cast that is not 1) released straight to dvd, 2) a comedy, or 3) poorly written by Tyler Perry (see Roland Martin rant here). Yet, here we are in January 2012, fortunate to have not one, but two films that fit these criteria. I must say that one (Pariah) is definitively better than the other (Red Tails), but both offer quality entertainment that ought to spark conversations that transcend racial boundaries. Though this line of connection is rather thin, I’d like to do a short comparison of the two movies, not from the perspective of one being better than the other, but of their differing messages for how ostracized groups confront and overcome unjustified social stigma.

Red Tails tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-Negro squadron of fighter pilots in World War II who overcame racist doubts about their abilities to have great success defending American bomber planes. The narrative, with brief interruptions, centers around two main characters, Marty “Easy” Julian and Joe “Lightning” Little. Their friendship is deep but tenuous as “Easy”, the squadron leader, has a tough time reigning in the impetuous and undisciplined “Lightning”. In turn, Lightning is unsettled that Easy manages the stress of leading the Airmen as the embodiment of the “Great Black Hope” (that’s my phrase, not to be found in the movie), as well as his PhD father’s high expectations by drinking whiskey, even before flying.

The most memorable dialog in a movie of utterly forgettable lines (typical of a George Lucas film), was a conversation between Lightning and Easy after Lightning is thrown in the brig for inciting a fight by daring to go into the “Whites only” Officers’ Club as a Black officer. Easy essentially tells Lightning to focus on the flying and to choose his battles more carefully. Lightning responds by accusing Easy of conforming to the standards of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise (“The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”). Given the way Washington’s compromise is perceived in African-American culture today (not very favorably), the viewer is supposed to identify with Lightning’s rebuke of Easy even while thinking that Easy’s choice of picking a fight at the Officers’ Club was foolish.

Yet, the entire movie seems to be an affirmation of the Compromise. The Negro commander advocates for a chance to prove the quality of the Tuskegee Airmen, despite being told repeatedly by one of the commanding generals that the Airmen could not possibly be good fighter pilots. The senior Negro officers express to the Airmen that they have to be better than good in order to prove their worth. The pilots gain admission and acceptance into the Officers’ Club only after they have proven themselves worthy by successfully escorting the bomber planes flown by the white pilots (and only after white fighter pilots are shown to constantly abandon the vulnerable bomber planes to seek the glory of shooting down a german fighter plane). The lesson Red Tails leaves us with is that if you excel, you will be rewarded and social boundaries that seek to limit you will be taken down. This is exactly the lesson of the Atlanta Compromise.

History, of course, tells an entirely different story. America has hardly been a meritocracy and successful Blacks were consider aberrations, not proof of racial equality. Racial progress came from both “severe and constant struggle” and “the agitation of questions of social equality.” By giving a shallow treatment of the racial dilemma facing the Tuskegee Airmen, Red Tails does a disservice to those gentlemen and, much like The Help, gives the viewer cheap racial grace. Further, it devalues the idea that some boundaries cannot be overcome by hardwork alone, they must be agitated against.

Pariah teaches us a different lesson about dealing with social boundaries. Pariah is the coming of age story of Alike, a seventeen year old Black lesbian living in a fractured home in New York City. Alike is caught trying to find her authentic self while negotiating ill-fitting identities that have been established for her by others. She is not the high-achieving, delicate princess that her mom wishes her to be, nor is she the super-aggressive girl-on-the-prowl that her best friend, Laura, encourages her to be. She does not fit stereotypical lesbian archetypes (one side character proclaims she would be into Alike if she were more “hard”). Her parents suspect that she is gay, but cannot either beare the thought of it (her mother) or would rather pretend that she wasn’t (her father).

Alike is clearly a bright, thoughtful, responsible and sensitive young lady. She has translated the values of her mother to apply to her authentic self by refusing to pursue sex just because. She hides her identity from them because she doesn’t want to disappoint them. When the truth comes out, only her father is able to see (after a brief delay) that she is still the same woman they have raised. After a painful attempt to reconnect with her mother, Alike accepts early admittance to Cal Berkeley and rides off, triumphantly towards a new life for herself.

The Atlanta Compromise lens through which Red Tails views the world, certainly doesn’t fit in Pariah‘s worldview. Alike overachieves to the point that she receives early admittance into the second best public university in the nation (sorry Cal, I went to the University of Virginia), yet it is clear that she will not earn acceptance anytime soon from her mother or her block. In the same vein, her best friend Laura perseveres and earns her GED, despite begin kicked out of her mother’s house and struggling to make ends meet with her sister. When Laura attempts to share the news with her own mother, her mom shuts the door in her face without mumbling a word. Clearly excellence alone is not enough to overcome these social barriers.

Pariah is more honest about the challenge of overcoming prejudices. Alike’s father accepts her because she is his daughter, not out of some grand commitment to social equality. Her mother cannot do the same. Alike mistakenly believes she has found love with a young woman who has not yet come to terms with her own identity. Alike resists the temptation to live out her identity in a manner inconsistent with her values and refuses to pretend to be someone who she is not. She turns her mother’s chastisement that “God don’t make mistakes” into an affirmation of her own being. In so doing, she declares herself to be both a child of God and the handiwork of God’s craftsmanship.

Pariah teaches us to live courageously in the face of boundaries that seek to limit or exclude us. Whether we are Black in a White-dominated society, female in a male-dominated industry, or same-gender-loving in an un-accepting culture, we can only live true to our authentic selves and challenge others to love us for who we are. The decisions by Alike and Laura to love their mothers despite their mothers’ rejection of them points to a way forward for social change. We all would do well to refuse to hate those who either hate us or consider us less than. There is no guarantee that we will change them, but perhaps we can learn something instructive about ourselves.


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