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Movie Made Stereotypes

Did you go see Red Tails this weekend? The film is a depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen an African American unit of fighter pilots that served during WWII. The film is both a testament to “how far we’ve come” and how far we’ve yet to go in bringing racial equality to the movies. In this piece Nathan Palmer asks us to examine how racial ethnic groups are portrayed in action films and think about the consequences these stereotypical portrayals may have on society.

Have you ever noticed that the villains in almost every action movie are either Russians, Middle Eastern terrorists, or gang members? Over and over again the villains in Hollywood action movies are either foreigners or people of color or both.

On the other side, the heroes are most often white men. Over the last few years we’ve seen actors like Denzil Washington, Zoe Saldana, Jet Li, and Kate Beckinsale take the lead in action movies, so it’s unfair to say there are no non-white non-male action heroes, but there aren’t many.

Hollywood action movies, more than other genres, are a loaded with stereotypes and they can teach us a lot about who holds social power. I bring this up today because over the weekend Hollywood released Red Tails a big budget action flick about the brave African American men who served as fighter pilots in WWII. The film is both an affirmation of “how far we’ve come” and how far we’ve yet to go.

The film, which I saw on Friday, is mediocre with an extraordinary cast delivering terrible lines of dialogue. What makes the film noteworthy and deserving of our attention here is first and foremost it’s subject: The Tuskegee Airmen. This was the nickname given to the group of African Americans who severed in the U.S. Army Air Corps. 332nd Fighter Group. These men served in segregated ranks, received inadequate resources and planes, but thrived as pilots despite these disadvantages. Eventually the Army recognized their abilities by giving them orders to protect bomber plans on dangerous bombing runs. When the Army provided them with the modern P–51 Mustang planes they painted the tails of the planes red, hence the nickname “Red Tails”. These men were recognized for their valor by the Army and the white bomber crews recognized their skill by commonly referring to them as the “Red Tail Angels.” The Tuskeegee Airmen are true American Heroes, as deserving of being memorialized in film as any American service man or women, so why did it take 68 years for hollywood to make a big budget action movie about them?

The Tuskegee Airmen 1942

The answer, according to producer George Lucas, is that no Hollywood studio was willing to finance and market a film with an all Black cast. Lucas said in an interview with Jon Stewart (see clip below) that when he pitched the film to studios previously the said to him, “We don’t know how to market this movie…” Stewart asked him why and he responded, “It’s because it’s an all black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all. It’s one of the first all black action pictures ever made.”

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

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Lucas goes on to say that movies with predominantly black casts struggle to this day to get financed and even successful predominantly black films like the Tyler Perry movies are not released by the major movie houses. Perry echoed and supported Lucas’s assessment of the situation writing on his website, “Unfortunately, movies starring an all African American cast are on the verge of becoming extinct. THAT’S RIGHT, EXTINCT!”

What this suggests is the lack of leading men and women of color in action films (or any films) isn’t an accident or simply a matter of taste. Rather it’s a calculated move by Hollywood studios. “But that’s just capitalism, so what?” you may be saying right now.

The answer is that the repeated racialized portrayals in action movies and the rest of the media isn’t without consequence. A study released in 2001 found that when teenagers were asked to identify the role a person of a given racial ethnic group would be most likely to play they reported the following:

It’s clear that the repeated racialized stereotypes portrayed in action films are at the very least contributing to and reflecting the formation of stereotypes in our larger culture. The next time you check out an action flick be on the look out for these stereotypes. Once you have eyes for them, you can’t stop seeing them.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Can you think of some action films that do not present heroes and villains in stereotypical ways? Explain how they are different.
  2. If Tyler Perry is correct and all black films do become extinct, what will we as a society lose? Why is it important to tell the stories of all racial ethnic backgrounds?
  3. Most people would argue that they don’t believe the stereotypes about racial ethnic minorities, but yet they are able to easily recite them. Is it possible that stereotypes could be playing out in an unconscious way? Could the stereotypes be affecting all of us, even if some of us are trying to avoid them?
  4. How do you think the racially stereotyped portrayals of heroes and villains in movies affects children? Is there an advantage to having hero role models who look like you? Is there a disadvantage to frequently seeing people who look like you as the “bad guys”?