The Tuskegee Airmen were an operational unit of black fighter pilots and bombardiers during World War II, racially segregated from the rest of the American forces because psychological profiling by the U.S. Army Air Corps determined that blacks would be ill-equipped to be pilots because of their inability to follow authority and their propensity towards cowardice. Yet, shockingly, government sponsored racial profiling turned out to tremendous bullshit, and the fighter pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group was one of the most disciplined and brave fighter battalions in the war, so skilled at protecting bombers that until recently they were professed to have never let a bomber get destroyed under their watch. They are the epitome of bravery and courage under extreme duress, and deservingly, several outstanding movies have been made about them. Red Tails is not one of those movies. The scenes of aerial dog-fighting are phenomenal, and the film has the wonderful look and feel of old-timey newsreels. But the dialogue is physically painful. While I’ve never been peppered with a fusillade of Nazi bullets, I can only imagine it’s less agonizing than listening to the stilted and corny words that are forced to come out of these talented actors mouths. And if you thought The Help was racially oversimplified, holy shit, buckle up and put your tray tables in their full upright positions, because Red Tails blows it out of the sky.
The film has been a pet project of George Lucas, forger and rapist of our childhood dreams. He’s been working to get a Tuskegee Airmen film produced since 1988. Allegedly, the original script was over nine hours long, so Lucas opted to take the middle part and condense it, paring away exposition and a legitimate ending and actual characters and character development, so that he could make a taut two hour film about black men shooting down Nazis with airplanes. That’s the biggest part of the problem — the film ends up feeling like a lost middle child. It’s the equivalent of watching The Empire Strikes Back without having seen any of the other Star Wars films. The stuff that happens is impressive, but without investment in any of the characters, it’s just some weird whiny kid with big eyes getting his hand chopped off by some asthmatic in bondage gear and Indiana Jones getting turned into a parking lot by Rosie O’Donnell.
Lucas had problems getting funding because he opted for the noble attempt to make one of the first (if not the first) massively budgeted action films with an entirely black leading cast. The studios felt that the foreign market wouldn’t be down. And truth be told, Lucas is totally right. The studios won’t fund an action movie without white heroes, which while unbelievable and despicable, is true. Not even action movies. There’s a budgetary cap on anything that isn’t perceived as being palatable to not just white audiences but the foreign markets. Even someone like Tyler Perry isn’t getting a blank check. And while I applaud George Lucas for his efforts, buddy, you gotta at least give them a good film. It doesn’t matter whether the actors are black if all the dialogue sounds and smells brown. I long for the day when the cast isn’t assembled from some sort of racial bingo card checklist, where a multiracial couple can exist without it being commented on, and where someone can save the day without having to make out with someone else first. But that’s why I’m unemployed in Hollywood.
Loosely based on the true exploits of the actual Tuskegee Airmen, we’re introduced to a cadre of Top Gun nicknames that we will be forced to accept as fully developed characters. Everyone’s assigned one convenient character conceit to make things simple. The squad leader is Easy (Nate Parker, The Great Debaters), a by-the-book man with a soft heart just looking out for his boys, and the least committed alcoholic I’ve ever seen. He butts heads with his closest friend and the best fighter pilot, Lightning (David Oyelowo, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), a brash hotheaded ladies’ man, who quickly falls for an Italian girl he sees on a flyby and instantaneously commits himself to her. Then there’s Junior (Tristan Wilds, “The Wire”), a youngin’ who wants to be called Ray Gun and who keeps a blaster pistol as his good luck charm; Joker (Elijah Kelley, Hairspray), the funny one probably; Deacon (Marcus T. Paulk, Roll Bounce), the religious one probably; and Smoky (Ne-Yo, Stomp the Yard), a good ol’ boy talking with a plug a chaw in his mouth. There’s two rascally crewmen who sass the pilots about wrecking the planes, Coffee (Andre Royo, Bubbles from “The Wire”) and Sticks (Cliff “Method Man” Smith). Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Major Stance, who spends most of the film with a pipe in his mouth like Burt Reynolds with an orange foam cowboy hat on SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy! parodies. And Terence Howard plays Colonel Bullard, the gruff commander trying to make sure his boys get a chance to fly missions.
There are a few white parts in the film, though I’m loathe to call them actors since they exist to act as sounding boards. For example, Bryan Cranston stars as Racism. He has two scenes where he wears an army uniform and scowls at Terence Howard, telling him that black pilots are no good and then promptly getting his due comeuppance. Lee Tergesen and Gerald McRaney are the good white army guys. Everyone else is there to basically say, “Black people?! Flying airplanes?! BOOOOO!!!” This is actually sharper than the dialogue they are given, which isn’t even heady enough to be hokey. I guess this is fair reversal on the stereotypes most black actors suffer, where their dialogue consists mostly of “Yo!,” “Daaaaaammmn!,” and “Knowhutimsayin?” before swiftly dying first. And unless you count the overwhelming scorn of white authority, there’s no developed enemy in the film. The Nazis primarily act as cardboard targets for the pilots to shoot at, with the lone exception of one scarred ace fighter pilot, referred to as “Prettyboy,” who gets such gem lines as “Die you foolish African!”
Again, there’s not a plot so much as a general forward gist held aloft by traditional military movie cliches. I’m ashamed and astonished to realize that the script comes from John Ridley (Undercover Brother) and Aaron McGruder (creator of “The Boondocks”). Well, not so much Ridley. If they were trying to Jimmy Olson the dialogue, they didn’t go far enough. So while it’s not “Jiminy Gee Willikers!” it’s more just a lot of unintentionally hilariously badly timed slurs. The plot itself can be summed up as the following: Black People Can’t Do Anything! followed by Black People Can Do Everything! followed by Here’s A Medal. Along the way there are several subplots which are doled out with such brevity, it’d be better if they avoided them all together. Rather than cutting the story, they could easily have cut characters, since it’s a fictionalized account anyway, and it would have be smoother. There’s actually an entire thread where a character gets shot down and captured by enemy soldiers that’s about as indepth as the TV Guide summary of a “Hogan’s Heroes” rerun. I refuse to blame director Anthony Hemingway, whose done mostly television work up until this point, because he was clearly just following orders, and the battle plans laid out by McGruder and Ridley were faulty at best.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s story has been told before, and it’s been told well. I respect fully Lucas’s intent: to give a big budget, showy, explodey dynamic to a worthy tale. And Red Tails looks beautiful. Planes swooping around, trailing smoke, bullets arc across the sky as the dive in and out of bomber squadrons, it’s lovely. But, there’s no meat on the bones, and the airmen are reduced to baseball cards rather than decent and stoic men. Racism is bad, and few suffered worse than the Tuskegee Airmen, who were basically looked at like intelligent apes destined to fail. But we don’t need George Lucas’s ham fist beating that dully into our foreheads. Once again, Lucas has proven that he knows how to build tin men and dash them against each other with sparks and shine, but he doesn’t know how the first thing about heart.