Those Daring Black Men in Their Flying Machines...
The Tuskegee Airmen deserve all the accolades and honors that a most grateful nation can bestow for their true heroism. In 2021, the United States Mint will issue its final National Parks Commemorative Quarters for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
Red Tails is the feature film that details the rise of the Tuskegee Airmen, and to its credit it isn't a dry history lesson. To its detriment, it isn't much else.
It's Italy, 1944, and the Negro* airmen don't have much to do in terms of actually engaging the enemy. If they do, it's really more by accident and persistence than by direct orders.
This frustrates the pilots: the more sober but ironically alcoholic flight commander Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and his wingman, hot-shot/hot-tempered Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo). The impediments to advancement and combat also bother other pilots: the devout "Deacon/Deke" Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk), the comical Samuel "Joker" George (Elijah Kelley) and equally amusing Andrew "Smokey" Salem (R & B star Ne-Yo), and the youngster Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds) who would rather go by another nom de guerre: "Ray-Gun".
Their commanding officers, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Emmanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) constantly fight to get the airmen better equipment and actual combat duty, despite the resistance of barely concealed racist Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston). Despite the obstacles, the necessity of war forces their situation: Major General Luntz (Gerald McRaney) needs dependable escorts for his flying fortresses, and the Tuskegee Airmen appear to be able to do the job. With that, the Tuskegee Airmen finally take full flight.
To mark themselves as distinct from their fellow fliers, the defiant men paint their airplane tails red.
Somewhere along the way in Red Tails, we get other story threads: there is a little romance between Lighting and an Italian signorina named Sofia (Daniela Ruah), some pilots don't make it to V-E Day, Easy's alcoholism grows while remaining remarkably hidden to everyone save for Lighting, and Junior falls behind enemy lines and ends up in Stalag 17 (technically Stalag 19, but given how the story goes, you might as well have William Holden in the next bunk).
We end with the Red Tails achieving what they had earned by deeds: the salute of their white military leaders.
Somehow, the idea of bringing the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the big screen appears to be a no-brainer. It's a story with action, adventure, romance, and the bonus of personal courage despite unfair obstacles. Red Tails, however, drops the ball slightly by not giving the characters anything to do when they are on the ground.
On has to give enormous credit to director Anthony Hemingway for creating simply wonderful moments of aerial combat. Red Tails opens with a spectacular dogfight that to my mind was highly reminiscent of those from the epic Wings, and whenever we see the Airmen fighting the Germans or taking on the Nazi war machine be it over land or sea, the film is wildly impressive and exciting.
It's only when we get on the ground that Red Tails loses its way. Every time we are suppose to get the human lives behind the Tuskegee Airmen, we are loaded up with stock characters: the religious man, the comic, the by-the-book leader, the hotshot "Maverick" (pun intended) and the rookie.
Moreover, Aaron McGruder and John Ridley's screenplay, based on a story by Ridley, at times almost becomes unintentionally comical. As I looked over my notes, I somehow managed to write the phrases "Easy on the booze" and "Lightning crashes", only realizing later that they both sound like awful puns but in fact are an accurate description of the events in the film.
In the two hours of Red Tails, it isn't until about an hour into it that Junior has to bail out and is captured. He then goes into the camp, meets with the stalag leader, then we go back to the other Airmen, and then after a long absence, we see him about to escape the P.O.W. camp. What really happened between Junior's capture and his escape? How did he manage to be part of this master-plan? How did he get the things they needed to get out? Did he build any genuine friendships?
Oddly, a whole movie could have been made just out of Ray-Gun's exploits, but because we simply had too many characters with only a few having any story threads, the film had no choice but to jump around and give us only the sketchiest of details.
Moreover the details we do get are remarkably boring and only stop to slow the film down. The romance between Lightning and Sofia appeared to be almost rammed in because all good war films require a love story, and Easy's frustrations of having to live up to his father's high expectations, along with his functional alcoholism, again are touched on but not explored.
It's as if Red Tails only wants to give us the thinnest information about the various pilots in order to give them a touch of a backstory.
I fault the screenplay for most of Red Tails' failures to be as good as it could have been. I counted four 'inspirational speeches', all given by Howard, as part of the problem. His Colonel Bullard had obviously risen high in the Army, but in Red Tails, his chief purpose was to rally the troops by giving inspiring messages to them (Terence Blanchard's score only emphasizes how 'important' and 'inspiring' the Colonel's words are suppose to be).
My biggest issue with Red Tails is that we never really got to know the characters. What kind of men were they? Did they have fear? Did they have hope that things would improve? What about their interpersonal relations? Aside from Lighting's romance with Sofia, one would have almost thought all of them were monks given their lack of love lives. Aside from Deacon you would have little indication that they had much of a faith system. Aside from Easy's hinted father issues you'd think all their families from parents to wives to children were non-existent.
I was ready to give Red Tails a barely passing grade because it wasn't terrible but not as good as it could have been. That is, until we got to near the end, when we get a terrible and unfair twist with a character that is plain cheating and frankly opens up a great deal of questions involving points of logic. I refer to this as a Pearl Harbor situation: you've been led to believe a character has died in war only to have him pop back up very much alive and looking even better than when we last saw him.
At that point, I actually said out loud, "Oh, come on!" because it didn't work. Add to that, it didn't make any sense: we've been given that character's dogtags, for heaven's sake, and told that they should be given to Easy 'in case he didn't make it'. It's only fair to assume he didn't make it. However, somehow he actually made it, which begs the question: did the guy who brought said dogtags to Easy realize that character wasn't dead or was he so dumb that he thought he was? How did he know he was dead? Was it all part of a practical joke?
I call such plot devices 'cheating', which is something the Tuskegee Airmen did not do. You can't fault the film for good intentions and a noble outlook. You CAN fault them for bungling the job. Again: something the Tuskegee Airmen did not do.
Their story needs to be told and remembered...it just needs a better movie to do so.
*As the term 'Negro' was in common use at the time setting of Red Tails, I used it in that context.