Efforts to raise awareness about a movie celebrating a group of African American fighter pilots was cause for concern for commentator Rosalyn Story.
When I was a child, during what was then Negro History Week, my teachers brought out coloring books and calendars filled with images of black heroes, and regaled us with stories of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and lesser known heroes like civil rights pioneers Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Charles Drew, who invented the blood bank. And we learned of others, like the black infantry who fought bravely in the Civil War, and the elite fighter pilots of WW II, the Tuskegee Airmen.
It was because of this story of black Army flyers that Oprah Winfrey came to Dallas back in December. Red Tails, the film project of Star Wars producer George Lucas, needed a boost, and Winfrey lent her endorsement to rally forces behind this against-all-odds tale of black bravery in the segregated army of World War II.
In 1990, a similar film appeared: Denzel Washington co-starred in Glory, the story of the black Civil War unit, led by their young white colonel, played by Matthew Broderick. But the films are quite different: Red Tails, with a virtually all-black cast, stars no white box office hero, like Broderick, to boost its mainstream creds.
Early on, it seemed Red Tails was doomed. Lucas’s pitches to studio execs were met with blank looks, shrugs, and ultimately a collective ‘no.’ A black cast film, Hollywood insisted, would attract few whites, and the black audience for serious films was simply too small. So Lucas bankrolled the film with his own funds.
When black online bloggers learned of the plight of Red Tails, e-mail boxes filled up with pleas to prove the industry moguls wrong. The film opened to an impressive $19 million, occupying the weekend box office number two spot, while appearing on fewer screens than other top grossing films.
Of course, it was no accident that Red Tails, like Glory, screened during Black History Month, when the spotlight of history’s heroes shifts to African Americans of note. But while Hollywood may have been proven wrong on one score, it may have been right on another. All-black-cast films may indeed attract fewer white movie-goers than films with even one white star. But can’t stories of courage and triumph against the odds inspire and speak to members of every culture?
Is it just black history, or is it American history?
When I was 10, I had just started playing the violin and I saw my first symphony orchestra, the Kansas City Philharmonic. I had seen Itzhak Perlman, the great Jewish violinist on TV, and was mesmerized. So I told my mother I would play in our city’s symphony one day.
It would have been wonderful had there been a black violinist on whose accomplishments I could have pinned my own dreams, but in my youthful naiveté I didn’t see color; I only heard the music. And twelve years later, the orchestra at last had one face of color, mine.
As we celebrate black history, and once again the stories of our heroes reach across the boundaries of time, I hope they can also reach across cultures to inspire children of every color and creed. I hope we can begin to understand that as Americans our lives are intertwined, our dreams weaving around and connecting the multi-textured threads of our separate histories. Black history is American history, after all, belonging to all of us, making all of our dreams more vivid, our lives more richly informed, our futures more ripe with possibility.
Rosalyn Story is an author and violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony