Anyone who knows me knows I’m a HUGE fan of Star Wars. Most people who know me (at this point) know (if they’re paying any kind of attention) that I’m getting more and more involved in anti-racist activist work. So on the surface, I should be over the freaking MOON about George Lucas’ new movie, Red Tails, which is the true story of a group of African-American pilots (known as the Tuskegee Airmen) who fought in World War II. Incidentally, my mom recently told me about a book called Mudbound, which is about black pilots from WWII returning home to the Jim Crow South after the war. (Mudbound won a Bellwether Prize, which is a book award for socially engaged works of fiction; I’m hoping our book group will read it sometime this year!)
George Lucas has been getting a lot of press for his new movie, specifically around the hardships he faced in getting his movie made. Hollywood producers told him, “No one wants to see a film with an all-black cast.” Now, yes, that reaction from Hollywood executives (while unsurprising) is outrageous, offensive, and a really good example of institutional racism. But you have to admit: there’s a certain irony to the man who created Jar Jar Binks complaining about institutional racism in Hollywood.
Brief history lesson: There was a fair amount of outrage regarding Jar Jar Binks when the general travesty that was Episode 1 was released. Jar Jar is little more than a stereotype of the slave black person, speaking pigin english and walking loose and gangly: a cliché in 1950’s caricatures of black folks. He says things like “Meesa called Jar Jar Binks! Meesa become your humble servant!” At the time, the argument was made that Lucas’ 6-year-old son came up with the idea of Jar Jar. Though I find it hard to believe that a 6-year old kid asked the character to have such obvious affects borrowed from blackface, Lucas had the power to create the character’s speech and mannerisms any way he wanted. He chose to create a character that was extremely offensive to people of color (and, for that matter, anyone who cares about racial justice.) Even if his kid did ask for the character to have those attributes, Lucas, as an adult, had the responsibility of explaining how (and why) he was going to tweak the character so that it wouldn’t be alienating and offensive. But he didn’t.
Fast-forward to today: Lucas has produced Red Tails, and is getting all kinds of press and attention about the new movie, and doing a lot of talking about how Hollywood didn’t know how (or didn’t want) to promote a movie with an all-black cast and no white guy saving the day. But here’s the thing: Hollywood is getting exactly what it wanted. George Lucas IS their great white savior, only it’s the movie ITSELF that he had to save. He has become the hero in the story of the little movie that almost didn’t get made, struggling against all odds to tell the story of black folks. Hollywood wanted the story of the white guy who saves the day, and they got it. The real kicker is that Lucas had very little to do with Red Tails, outside of funding it and creating the initial story. The director and screenwriters are black, but somehow they’re not even mentioned in Lucas’ interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.
I don’t care if Lucas didn’t come up with the idea of Jar Jar Binks, because (as his recent actions show), he is still a far cry from truly being a white ally. I am not willing to pat him on the back and pretend that all is forgiven when it comes to his past fuck-ups, when he’s never owned up to them, and he’s still making some of the same mistakes. George Lucas has a long way to go before I’ll be willing to give him the “white ally” stamp of approval. Step one is recognizing his past fuck-ups and problematic racist crap from Star Wars (and he has quite a lot to answer for.) Step two might be mentioning the names of the director (Anthony Hemingway) and writers (John Ridley and Aaron McGruder) for Red Tails. Step three might be refusing to bend to the force of white paternalism in Hollywood by stepping out of the limelight when he financially supports the creative pursuits of black filmmakers. So he made a movie that had no white hero in the story. That’s great, but now I want to watch him stop trying to BE the hero in the story of getting the movie made. If he can’t do that, he’s really no different than the Hollywood studio execs who were too scared to publicize a movie with no white guy saving the world.
I don’t think Lucas is being intentionally racist with his actions. I actually think he’s probably a pretty good dude, with pretty good intentions. But unfortunately, that’s not enough for me anymore. Good intentions only get you so far, and I believe that intent is irrelevant when it comes to whether or not someone is being racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or abelist, or otherwise crappy to an underprivileged group of people.) Sure, some people do racist/fucked-up shit on purpose, but I think far more often people do racist/fucked-up shit without realizing that’s what they’re doing. An argument can be made that they didn’t really MEAN to hurt anyone, but I think it’s like following the traffic laws: ignorance of the rules doesn’t exempt you from having to following them. If you don’t realize that you can’t run a red light, and you do it and you hit someone else with your car, that person is not any less dead because you didn’t know you were supposed to stop. And you’re not any less guilty because you didn’t know the rules. If you can’t be bothered to learn how things work before you get behind the wheel of a car, I don’t think you should be driving. And if you can’t be bothered to examine your own unearned racial privilege, then you probably shouldn’t be making movies about people of color.
Lucas is not the only person in Hollywood who probably thinks they’re doing something good, but is actually just perpetuating damaging stereotypes about people of color, and the myth that they need whites to come along and make everything better. Blind Side, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds, The Help, Avatar…in so many of these movies, the white lead “manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member (and usually gets some pretty good exoticized sex for his trouble too),” as pointed out by a number of smart, awesome bloggers. These stereotypes and well-worn tropes are problematic, and endemic of an overall culture of white supremacy, which is tiresome and needs to be changed.
All that said: I do really like Star Wars, and am a huge, nerdy fan of the movies. And I’m really looking forward to seeing Red Tails. But even though I like a movie or book, I still try to view it through the lens of my social justice values. As a white person, (who is also middle-class, able-bodied, cisgender, and overall pretty damn fortunate compared to a lot of other folks), it’s easy for me to still find enjoyment in something while I also find it problematic, because at the end of the day: those stories are not really about me or my daily life and struggles. And that, friends, is the very definition of privilege. My privilege is what gives me the ability to tune in and out and pick and choose when I want to fight the difficult battles, or read the difficult stories. I can put the book down if it’s hard or sad. The people living and experiencing those realities don’t have that choice.
As white activists and allies, we have to do better. We have to recognize our privilege if we want to be good allies to people of color. We have to hold ourselves, and each other, accountable. We have to expect more of ourselves, and not let ourselves off the hook when things get “too hard,” because we have to remind ourselves that other people don’t have the option of tuning out when shit gets hard. We have to read the challenging books. Watch the hard movies. Speak out. Take risks. We have to jump in when it’s time to take blame, and step back when it’s time to take credit. We constantly ask people of color to take a back seat, compartmentalize aspects of their identity, and set aside their race in the name of the “greater good” of the other cause(s) we’re trying to impact. And that shit is NOT OKAY. As white allies, we have to TRY HARDER and pay more attention when we create imagery and publish materials that support our politics. It is our responsibility to not be lazy, to not let our racial privilege get in the way of the good work we’re trying to do in the world. It’s OUR responsibility, and we have to STEP IT THE FUCK UP.
I’m hoping that, at the very least, Red Tails is a great movie that tells a story that needed a voice. And I’m hoping that one day, we’ll have a world where these stories get the same amount of attention and press even when no white guy champions the cause.