‘Red Tails’ Is Real American History

‘Red Tails’ Is Real American History

As a young, educated, and professional Black woman, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I was able to graduate from the United States Naval Academy and serve as an officer in the United States Marine Corps thanks to heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen who paved the way before me. That’s why I’m thankful that the next generation will be able to experience glimpses of their story in this weekend’s opening of the movie, Red Tails.

Red Tails is inspired by the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, who served as America’s first black aerial combat unit. This movie took nearly 23 years to complete and it’s a story that needs to be told. The reality of bringing this movie to the big screen is due in no small feat to the tenacity of producer George Lucas (Star Wars), who financed the project with $93 million of his own money.

Lucas started out consulting with 40 Tuskegee Airmen and that number has now dwindled to seven. Lucas was determined to get this project to the big screen before all of the Tuskegee Airmen died. Thanks to his work with director Anthony Hemingway, they have produced what has been labeled a World War II action movie with the most special effects of any film of this kind. The special effects in Red Tails are on par with films such as Lucas’ most recent Star Wars films and James Cameron’s Avatar, which means it doesn’t get much better.

LUCAS and LEGENDS: George Lucas (far left) stood with surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen last fall as they were honored during a University of Southern California football game. Lucas consulted with 40 different Airmen during the making of "Red Tails." (Photo: Tony Leon/Newscom)

What do you have to look forward to? For the first time ever, this is not an action movie with one token person of color. Lucas and Hemingway have lined up an all-Black leading cast, including longtime fan favorites Terrence Howard (Col. A.J. Bullard) and Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Major Emanuelle Stance), with R&B singer Ne-Yo (Andrew ‘Smoky’ Salem) even taking a role. Rounding out the crew is Nate Parker (Marty ‘Easy’ Julian), whom you may remember from The Great Debaters; British actor David Oyelowo (Joe ‘Lightning’ Little); Michael B. Jordan (Maurice ‘Bumps” Wilson); and Elijah Kelley (Samuel ‘Joker’ George). Besides being talented actors, these men are also easy on the eyes, ladies.

Producing this movie was an uphill battle, as Lucas fought against the grain. Hollywood continued to reject the viability of selling a “black” action movie. But this is not just a Black movie that appeals to Black people; this is an American story about American patriots, military servants, and heroes who happen to be Black people.

Unfortunately, so many of the stories of Black history have been lost or rewritten over the years, allowing others to take credit for our work and contributions to this great country. We need to remind Hollywood, the media, politicians, and other leaders of what we have done. It’s not okay to narrow the focus of contributions of African Americas to a select few leaders who have changed the history of this country and made it what it is today. The foundation for much of America’s success as a nation was built on the backs of Black folk.

Now is an opportunity to celebrate our contributions. George Lucas’ vision for this project is to provide real heroes for young African American boys. I share his vision, and it is my hope that this movie rekindles conversations for our young boys and Black men about what they can be and do.

I hope this movie presents another opportunity to reinforce the importance of self-respect, goal setting, character building, persistence and hard work, and prioritizing education. This movie puts the names of real heroes on the lips of our children so that they go to the books and read the true stories. We have to stop the cycle of youth solely idolizing ball carriers and musical artists — some of which have spent more time in jail or tattoo parlors than they ever did in school, at home with their kids, or honoring the women in their lives. All athletes and artists aren’t bad, but we certainly need to expose our children to more engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and military servants (those who continuously give of themselves to make other people’s lives better).

Now is the time to show Hollywood that your money is green. Show Hollywood that great movies telling great stories that feature a predominately African American cast can explode at the box office during their opening weekends, and Tyler Perry does not have to produce them.

Red Tails opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere. Let’s get out to the theaters this weekend and show Hollywood that Black America wants more films like this! Take your friends, family, congregations, and kids. (Note: This movie has a PG-13 rating for some war violence.) See the movie once, twice, or three times, and then talk about it! Also be on the watch for Lucas’ two-hour documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen on The History Channel.

Let us know your thoughts on Hollywood’s claim that Black moviegoers will not support this type of film. Then let’s prove them wrong.

This article is adapted from an original post at UrbanCusp.com.

‘Thunder Soul’: From Music to Life

‘Thunder Soul’: From Music to Life

PLAY THAT FUNKY SOUL: The Kashmere High School Stage Band, circa 1976.

The new Mark Landsman documentary Thunder Soul may be relying on the glitz of executive producer Jamie Foxx’s name to get attention at the box office, but this magnificent little film about the musical achievements of an all-black Texas high school stage band hardly needs Foxx’s help.

Like a PSA on the lifetime value of music education in secondary schools, Thunder Soul captures the reunion of Kashmere High School’s funk band 35 years later as the alumni get the band back together to perform a tribute concert for their famed band leader and accomplished jazz musician Conrad O. Johnson. “Prof,” as the students call him, served as a father figure, drill sergeant, and part-time life coach, for the group of mainly at-risk African American kids, pushing and inspiring them to grow into award-winning musicians who innovated the world of high school stage band music with their smooth James Brown-inspired sound.

ALL TOGETHER NOW: Conrad “Prof” Johnson conducts the Houtson, Texas, Kashmere High School Stage Band.

Once tapped to be a musician for Count Basie’s touring band, Prof eventually passed on the glamorous lifestyle of professional music, choosing instead to settle into marriage and a quieter life of purpose as an educator for a local high school. Or so he thought. It was at Kashmere High that his creativity blossomed, leading him to craft a catalog of songs for the school band that are still being sampled by contemporary DJs and artists on hip-hop records and pop tunes today.

But it’s Prof’s lasting influence over the students’ lives, not the music industry, that looms largest in the film. Still eager to please the man who taught them so much of what they know, the alumni painstakingly turn the dissonance of decades passed and instruments left untouched into a stirring symphony paying appropriate homage to their 93-year-old professor. In awe of their ability to still play, Prof exclaims almost with a well-deserved wink of ego, “You mean they were taught so well, that they can remember what they did then … and do it?”

The answer is yes. And to hear the alumni speak, many of whom hadn’t touched a trombone or flute in over 30 years, those sacred hours spent in the band room during the 1970s were about more than just instruction on notes and harmony. Prof taught the students that they had the power and potential to play as well as any professional band, if they would only work hard. It was that inspiration that pushed many of the students out of the Fifth Ward of Texas with life sentences to poverty and raised them into adults who ultimately became doctors, lawyers, musicians, and even pastors.

Rhythmic and multi-faceted, the film itself is a bit like jazz — always progressing yet lingering over the notes. Landsman, aided by the phenomenal editing of Claire Didier, maintains the backbeat of the band’s story while weaving in colorful snippets of the Black Power movement, the racial segregation of the south, the cyclic nature of poverty in America, and the charm and intimacy of black families. Whether you love niche funk music or are simply a sucker for the sentimentality of a good underdog tale, Thunder Soul, even without a powerhouse star to headline the movie, is worth your time.

Thunder Soul opens today in Atlanta, Houston, and New York. Check the film’s website to find out when it opens in your area.

Put on Your Cape

In Waiting for ‘Superman,’ director Davis Guggenheim examines the reasons for America’s public education crisis, and challenges us to do something about it.

I recently had the opportunity to view the new documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ at a special pre-release screening. As an urban pastor, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, education and its impact on our children has become an issue close to my heart. So I settled into my seat with high hopes for the potential of this film to shine light on the many problems facing our nation’s schools. I was not disappointed.

Director Davis Guggenheim strikes an effective balance between telling personal stories (he follows the journey of five students) while also examining the demise of the national public school system, at a systemic level, over the past four decades. It is not a pretty tale.

The curious title of the film comes from Geoffrey Canada, the innovative and relentless leader of the nationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada tells the story of growing up in the projects of the Bronx and how he often fantasized about someone swooping in from the outside and saving him and his friends. His favorite superhero was Superman, who always seemed to show up when the people were in the greatest peril. Even as a young child, Canada knew the residents of his neighborhood were in grave danger because of socioeconomic inequities. It was a life-altering moment for him when his mother sternly warned him, “Geoffrey, Superman is not coming to save us. Nobody is coming to save us. We have to find our own way out.”

With this anecdote, Canada connects the viewer to the seriousness of this issue. He points out how children begin receiving contradictory messages about education from an early age. They are told, on one hand, that education is the key to being successful in this country’s economy. On the other hand, he says, they attend local schools that are “failure factories” that give them no chance at academic success. Kids are smart, and they interpret what is happening. They perceive early on that “this society is a cold, hard place.” They see that they are getting the short end of the stick, and they don’t know why. But they quickly figure out that there is no use in waiting for a superhero to fix the problem.

Throughout the film we are drawn into an emotional connection with the five young students (Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily) and their respective parents/guardians. Each child shows a great deal of aptitude and hope for the future, yet each is in danger because they live in a neighborhood with failing or dysfunctional schools. I imagine that each person in the audience who watches this will closely identify with at least one of the children.
For me it was Bianca, an amazing sixth-grader who wants to become a doctor someday so that she can spend her life “helping people.” As she shares her dreams, it’s easy to think that this bright girl’s internal drive and the nurture and support of her loving family should be enough to help her succeed. But then Guggenheim’s camera pulls back to give us a full view of the dilapidated school Bianca is on track to attend for seventh grade. It is one of the schools deemed a “failure factory.” Attending there, he notes matter-of-factly, will drop Bianca’s chances of success to an almost impossible percentage. Her parents decide that that Bianca’s best chance for achieving her dream will be to get accepted to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school miles away. But KIPP has only a handful of spaces open and hundreds of applicants.

In the Trenches: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada in the classroom. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)

This is the essence of the first big point Guggenheim seems to be making in the film. In urban areas in particular, the vast majority of public schools range in quality somewhere between “mediocre,” at best, to “abject,” at worst. Typically in a large city there’s at least a handful of schools that are doing exceedingly well, but the demand to get into those schools is exponentially greater than the number of students those schools are able to admit.

As the film progresses, Guggenheim proposes what he seems to think may be the most substantial obstacle of all: selfish human agendas intertwined with antiquated policies and immoveable teacher unions. To make his point, the director spends a large amount of time following Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. Rhee is a fiery and dynamic personality whose brash efforts at school reform are shown to be both innovative and polarizing. In Guggenheim’s narrative, she and Geoffrey Canada (as well as other iconoclastic teachers and administrators) represent the kind of super-persons required to rescue an imploding system. But the odds are stacked against them like a wall of Kryptonite.

Guggenheim weaves in and out of the lives of the five students and their families while regularly coming back to the list of obstacles to educational equity. Teacher tenure for those in the public school system is another heavy issue that’s tackled. How can a school insist on great teachers if there is no motivation for greatness and no way to fire underperforming teachers? Other obstacles explored include confusion between federal and state regulations, poor leadership in schools, and unmotivated teachers.

It’s here that Guggenheim is bound to run into the greatest amount of resistance from some within the public education community. With his previous film, An Inconvenient Truth, the director drew the skepticism and ire of conservative critics who question the science behind global warming. With Waiting for ‘Superman,’ teacher unions and the politicians (primarily Democrats) who depend on them most for support comes under the most severe scrutiny. But, to be sure, Guggenheim spends just as much time highlighting the extraordinary and often sacrificial efforts of teachers who are making a difference in their students’ lives.

As the documentary moves toward its conclusion, at least two major themes emerge. First, Guggenheim wants to bring into the open a fallacy that has become too commonplace behind closed doors: that children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods cannot be educated at as high a level as children in middle-class environments. To make his point, he takes viewers deep into two successful charter-school models: KIPP — which now runs 52 schools and counting — and the Harlem Children’s Zone. In a nation with increasingly low expectations for urban schools, these two models are changing the stakes. Both are generating incredible results year after year, and these results are changing the landscape. Guggenheim observes that children from KIPP and HCZ are not just achieving scores higher than other poor kids; they are achieving scores higher than all kids.

The second big theme is the call to all Americans (not just educators) to be concerned, and even outraged, by the discrepancies that exist in our public-school systems. Viewers are instructed to take action by visiting the film’s website for tips that include getting involved by attending local school board meetings, donating funds to help purchase supplies for under-resourced schools, and encouraging your governor and other state leaders to adopt the Common Core Standards as a way of improving the quality of the schools in your state.

For me, the most poignant moment of the documentary came near the end. We travel with each of the five children attending the lotteries where they will discover whether or not they have been accepted into the schools that give them their best shot at success. As you see the lottery balls turning in slow motion and names being drawn out of a hat, it seems impossible to believe that the fate of these children is left to something as arbitrary as a random drawing.
At a personal level, I’m both provoked and inspired by Waiting for ‘Superman.’ The film’s message compels me to do more. It makes me hope that many of us will rise to the challenge for the sake of our kids. It reminds me of the piercing words of Jesus of Nazareth, who said, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).

The educational system in this country has become a stumbling block for too many children and families. If nothing else, Waiting for ‘Superman’ exposes the mish-mash of agendas and broken-down systems that brought us to the sad place we are today. We must deepen the national conversation about how to best improve schools. But even more important, we must experience a national awakening to the importance of our children. We must place their futures at the forefront of our agendas.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens Sept. 24 in limited release and everywhere on Oct. 8. For more information, visit the film’s website.

Hair Apparent

Hair Apparent for urban faithChris Rock’s new documentary probes the world of black hair to humorous effect, but also forces us to confront disturbing questions about our prescribed standards of beauty.

One of the big conversations in my household this year has revolved around the question of whether my 9-year-old daughter is ready to get her hair “permed.” Some girls at her school have already been initiated into the world of relaxed hair, so the peer pressure is in effect.

On the one hand my wife, who spends an inordinate amount of time combing and styling our little girl’s hair each week, would love to reduce the strain and pain (on both her and my daughter) of braiding and curling and ponytailing. On the other hand, she’s not yet ready to subject our daughter to the extreme measures involved in chemically straightening black hair. Who would’ve imagined that there’s so much drama involved in styling a little girl’s tresses?

Well, Chris Rock did.

Rock’s new documentary, Good Hair (PG-13), opens Friday in limited release and nationwide on Oct. 23, but it’s already got lots of folks buzzing about this most sacred of topics in the black community.

Critics have praised Rock’s mixture of satire, history, and social commentary. And his funny but insightful look at the $9 billion black hair industry covers a lot of territory. Indeed, there are few things more central to the daily experience of a black woman. A good-looking ‘do plays a pivotal role in both her personal and professional happiness.

Yet an ominous theme undergirds the entire enterprise. Why do so many women spend so much time and so much money trying to attain what’s essentially a “white” look? That question is at the heart of Good Hair, and with Rock as our irreverent yet sympathetic tour guide, the film sets out to get some answers.

By roaming the exhibit floor of the massive Bronner Bros. Hair Show and talking to everyone from Maya Angelou to Raven Symoné, Rock presents a subculture that is at once familiar but nonetheless foreign. How is it, again, that some women are willing to pay thousands of dollars for weaves (some actually putting their hair on layaway) to create the illusion of long tresses? Or how is it that so many are willing to apply harsh sodium hydroxide creams to their heads to straighten kinky hair? (Rock demonstrates how the chemical can literally eat through chicken flesh and disintegrate aluminum cans.)

What Rock discovers in his cinematic expedition is a gold mine of endless humor (Al Sharpton even gets some screen time — need I say more?). But it’s also a source of great poignancy. That lingering issue of who determines the standard of true beauty pervades the movie like a stubborn ghost, haunting every corner of a black woman’s existence. Even our churches — or, perhaps, especially our churches — are full of lofty hairdo expectations for black women.

Still, in Good Hair, Rock is able to take all these contradictions and discomfitting realities and allow us to laugh at them — and at ourselves. He also may have inadvertently helped settle that little dilemma in my household: If I have any say in the matter, my 9-year-old will have to wait until she’s voting age before getting that soda-can-eating paste applied to her head.

Related Article: Afro America.

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attactions