Review: How Chicago and France Made Bessie Coleman, First Black Aviatrix

From director Olivier Sarrazin, this French production about the first African-American woman to receive a pilot’s license (although she had to go all the way to France to make it happen) is not only a serviceable biography of a worthy American trailblazer, but it’s a terrific snapshot into the period in which it takes place, both in the deeply divided world of the American south and the accepting and embrace of France during and after World War I.

Bessie Coleman
Image courtesy of Siskel Film Center

Born to Texas sharecroppers in the final years of the 1800s, Bessie Coleman moved to Chicago at the age of 24 with the dream of becoming a pilot. One of the primary reasons that Coleman and hundreds of thousands of other African Americans moved to the north was because of the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper and its outspoken publisher, Robert S. Abbott, who encouraged the Great Migration and specifically took Coleman’s story to heart when American aviation schools would accept neither blacks nor women. He partially financed (and helped find others to sponsor as well) her trip to France (in exchange for exclusive rights to cover her progress in the pages of his newspaper), where she attended a prestigious flying school and got a taste for a world in which her color was never an issue among the locals.

She returned to America, pilot’s license in hand, and began her life as a barnstormer in airshows, hoping to one day earn enough money to start her own aviation school that would accept anyone as a student. The film relies primarily on historians and aviation experts (most of whom are French) as well as one relative who, though they weren’t alive at the same time as Coleman, still has a great number of personal stories passed down through the family. The archival footage and photos add a tremendous amount and serve to break up the series of talking heads. There’s nothing especially flashy about the presentation of Bessie Coleman: First Black Aviatrix, nor does there have to be.

Running a little less than an hour, the film seems destined for PBS, which is not a criticism. Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the movie are journal entires from Coleman that give you some sense of her strength, determination and drive to make her dreams a reality. There is little indication in her writings that failure was ever a possibility—likely empowered by her time in Europe. I also enjoyed the views of the areas in France where Coleman learned to take off and land for the first time, and the detailed descriptions of the process she went through to learn to fly. Even if the presentation is on the dry side, the woman at the center of the documentary is well worth exploring, and this film is a worthy jumping-off point.

The film screens as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Black Harvest Film Festival on Saturday, Aug. 24, at 5:15pm, and Tuesday, Aug. 27, at 6pm.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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