a film review
by Jeanne Powell
“Red Tails” from Lucas Studios is being released with many advantages – major funding, well-known actors, a significant online presence and heroes you can believe in. Producer George Lucas is known internationally for adventure films such as “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars,” as well as the digital technology which revolutionized the way action films are made.
Whether the American public is ready for a film with African American military heroes is anyone’s guess, despite the success of “Glory” in 1989 with Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.
Lucas had to use his own money to finance “Red Tails,” which is analogous to Mel Gibson having to finance “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 and Spike Lee being forced to send an SOS to the African American community in 1992 to secure continued funding for “Malcolm X.” When you have a curriculum vitae on the level of Lucas, Gibson or Lee, financing your own film is not supposed to happen. But if Hollywood does not like the subject matter, such a producer or director has to dig into his own pocket or – in Spike Lee’s case – reach out to Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, etc.
African American troops served in segregated units from 1866 to 1948. The Tuskegee Airmen served in the Army Air Force (USAAF); the pilots were trained and deployed separately throughout World War II. Unlike African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War (1861-1865), the Tuskegee Airmen had black officers.
When the black pilots finally get a chance to fly the new P-51s, instead of second-rate equipment cast off by white units, they paint them with red noses and red tails. Military units often have distinctive colors or symbols identifying them clearly in battle.
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuel Stance and Terrence Howard as Col. A. J. Bullard are convincing as the men who have to do hard political fighting against racism in the Department of War, in order to get the black pilots assigned to air combat, rather than simply bombing enemy transport trucks and trains behind the lines.
Gooding plays the Red Tails' commanding officer with theatrical gestures as he disciplines and inspires his men. Cuba Gooding Jr. appeared in the 1995 television drama, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” with Laurence Fishburne. He also had major roles opposite Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire" (1996) and opposite Robert DeNiro in "Men of Honour" (2000).
Terence Howard distinguished himself in "Crash," a 2005 film with Thandie Newton and Don Cheadle. He also created a memorable character in "The Brave One" opposite Jodie Foster in 2007, and in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" with Halle Berry in 2005.
Nate Parker plays a troubled officer who doubts his own ability to lead, and is tempted by alcohol. He previously appeared in "Secret Life of Bees" with Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys, and in "The Great Debaters" with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker.
The accomplishments of African American military veterans have been documented by others. In 2005 actor Tim Reid narrated “The Invisible Men of Honor: The Legend of the Buffalo Soldiers.” And he directed a documentary entitled “Blacks in the Military,” screened at Fayetteville State University in 2009. These documentaries contain footage of the Red Ball Express which operated 24/7 in support of General George Patton’s army in Europe, and of black troops who fought German soldiers in Tuscany in 1944 (see Spike Lee's film, "Miracle at St. Anna"). Reid criticized Steven Spielberg’s film, “Saving Private Ryan,” for omitting African American troops. And director Spike Lee criticized Clint Eastwood for similar omissions in his films about Iwo Jima.
In demeanor and dialogue, the airmen of “Red Tails” remind us that 1944 America was schizophrenic on race even more than now – fight fascism in Europe and Japan, but keep racism going at home. As one of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen has said, the black troops were fighting on three fronts – against Germany, Japan and segregation in the United States.
Conversations referring to home, the joy expressed when receiving mail, romance with local civilians, frustration about inferior equipment and menial assignments, longing for action – all the moments and behavior we have come to associate with war films are present but infused with the unique status of these volunteers. Most of the actors are fresh faces with just enough awkwardness in dialogue to convey the underlying fears of young airmen -- being in a strange place hoping for a dangerous assignment which will translate into equality and fair treatment once they’re back home, if they survive.
David Oyelowo as Joe Little walks into a white officers club in Italy and runs into trouble. This was a problem for black troops throughout Europe and the UK, since many white servicemen were given to violence against black men for any imagined social infraction. A horrifying scene in John Schlesinger’s 1979 film, “Yanks,” shows the brutality of white against black in social situations, as though they weren’t fighting on the same side.
A fighter plane has one pilot; a bomber carries a crew of 10. When the Red Tails finally receive a chance to escort American bombers to and from German air space, they acquit themselves extremely well and the all-white bomber crews are grateful. More than 60 Tuskegee Airmen died in action in that long-ago war. A few are alive today, frail in wheelchairs or walking with canes. With family and friends, they came out in force for the opening of “Red Tails.”
The action sequences – American fighters against German fighters – are amazing and fascinating, blending closeups of P-51 pilots and bomber crews with planes attacking, getting hit and crashing in flames. The carnage inside a bomber when it's been hit reminds one of Randall Jarrell's searing poem, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."
Early on, before jet planes were introduced, this one-on-one combat was competitive and recalled the air aces of the First World War. However, the loss of American bombers was significant when fighters chased each other through the skies. The Red Tails were asked to fly close escort, eschew dogfights, and bring the flying fortresses home after they dropped their bombs on German cities.
The commercial success of “Red Tails” may depend on communities, social clubs and church groups coming out in large numbers as they did for “Waiting to Exhale” in 1995, and Kevin Costner’s “The Body Guard” in 1992. In each case, Hollywood did not seem to know what to do with the film. Word of mouth has created a sizeable audience for many films in the past. Let’s hope it does for “Red Tails” as well.
see also http://sidewalkstv.com/web
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...