dir: Anthony Hemingway
It’s a story that’s been told a few times, but one that bears repeating, and that is clearly deserving of a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars range. Also, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserves all the attention George Lucas, his money, and his film technology can bring to the experience, surely.
After all, don’t African American actors deserve, at long last, to repeat all the corn, cheese and clichés of the Hollywood war movies of yesteryear they were so unfairly segregated from? Aren’t they due their dues by now, at long last, in this enlightened age?
Red Tails, in case you didn’t know and probably don’t care, is a story about African American pilots during World War II. It is a story George Lucas wanted to tell for decades, apparently, because of his deep connection to the subject matter(?) Look, I don’t know his real reasons, because who knows why he really does half of the stuff he does, as opposed to his publicly stated reasons. Does anyone on the planet really understand why it meant so much to him that Han Solo shooting Greedo first had to be expunged from the official record, despite the fact that we all saw it happen?
No, we don’t. When you’re that powerful, have more money than Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, and can make whatever you want, other people don’t have to understand your desire to shape reality to your whims, they just have to cut you a check and say “Yes, George.”
I remember seeing Lucas on The Daily Show talking about this film, and about how he had great difficulty getting studios to pony up cash for it, because they couldn’t imagine audiences wanting to see a film with so many African American actors in it. So he funded it himself. I don’t know if that’s true or not, because you can never tell with George, but if that was the reason it took so long to come to fruition, well, George got his wish in the end, and he also got to make a flick with aircraft getting into dogfights and blowing shit up without requiring Anakin Skywalker getting in on the act and fucking things up.
Set in 1944, and mostly in Italy as far as I could tell, these pilots are very good at what they do, but the high level brass doesn’t want them around other (white) American pilots or personnel. They have them attacking trucks and trains and such. I would have thought that was enough to keep them occupied, but no. Their commander, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard), agitates in Washington to get the brass to let them take the fight to the Germans directly.
At this time in America’s glorious history, African Americans are segregated throughout the armed services, by a command structure that’s happy to have them die for their country as long they’re not fighting for it too close to other white heroes. Also, they don’t want them fighting the Germans on the off chance that they might be as good at it as the other soldiers, thus invalidating the planks underpinning their continued exclusion from the playing field of civil rights.
The pilots aren’t crusading in that sense, but they are wondering when their day to be all heroic and to die for their country (in Italy) will come.
The group of pilots is as generic a group of African American pilots as you could imagine, if in fact you could imagine a group of African American pilots circa the 1940s. They also have those delightfully descriptive call sign-nicknames that takes care of all that messy characterisation and such other movies (outside of the war genre) pedantically bother with in order to help us differentiate protagonists and give a damn about them.
So there’s Easy, Lightning, Junior, Deacon, Joker and Smokey, and probably some others. No, I’m not making a lazy un-PC joke about ‘them’ being hard to differentiate. They’re easy to differentiate, because Easy’s the uptight alcoholic, Lightning’s the brash womaniser, Junior’s young, Deacon prays to Black Jesus, Joker makes jokes and Smokey speaks with an accent so think and murky you could boil up gumbo within it. Mmm, mmm. And he plays Robert Johnson tunes on the guitar like a champ.
And the terrifying Method Man of Wu Tang fame plays a mechanic. And there’s Bubs from The Wire! And Cuba Gooding Jr chewing on a pipe. And Terrence Howard bringing his pimp game to the fore in the service of his country!
All so different (yes, I am being sarcastic), all united in their common desire to be taken seriously, to be treated as men, to be respected for what they can do as well as what they have done. They all probably have fascinating stories, and could possibly be justified in having their own films about themselves. Taken together, they’re just a bunch of interchangeable guys with the same goal: kill Germans to gain the approval of White America.
And the only way to do this is by shooting down German fighter pilots. Of them all, since we don’t have any getting to know you scenes with the Germans, there’s one they nickname Pretty Boy who’s an ace and kills with pleasure. The rest are just machine gun fodder.
Let’s face it, the only interesting parts are really in the air, and by interesting, I mean there’s lots of stuff moving around and a fair few explosions. The dogfights are reasonably well done, I can’t say they were brilliant, but they certainly give us the feeling (it’s all CGI in the air) that it’s really happening, and that it’s really goddamn hard. The P-49 and P-51 Mustangs all look great, like the kind of model planes that gave little boys boners way after the war before they knew what boners were for.
Yes, I know boners is such an ugly word, but it’s a clarifying word. I enjoyed watching this stuff, I have to admit. I often, or at least, when I watch these flyboy movies, regardless of the war, I derive pleasure from it despite how generic they are, despite how interchangeable and formulaic their components and their themes are. All these stories are about some mavericks bucking the system and bending the rules, triumphing over adversity to win glory for themselves and their units, and I don’t have too much of a problem with that.
It makes me seem critically lacking in critical faculties, but there are some flicks, like these ones, where I just accept that it is what it is, and it can’t be any other way, and I get to somehow enjoy it all the same. All war films are like this, even the good ones, well, except for the truly great ones. So if I seem overly forgiving, let me just say that my acceptance of the premise and the overall outcome doesn’t make me blind to the curious racial stuff going on.
There’s a solid case to be made that since most of the ‘story’ we see has only a loose connection to actual historical events, that much of it is puffery, a fantasy version of events trying to make up for historical injustices that don’t really ring that true. A lot of time is given over to a fictional relationship carried out in public between Lightning and a local Italian girl which, I’m just saying, would probably have seen her murdered by her dear parents had it really come to pass in that way. Italy, 1940s, you do the math. And yet plenty of scenes have them swanning about like it’s the year 2012 in a cosmopolitan metropolis, where practically no-one cares anymore.
I don’t think so. I’m not saying it never happened, I’m just, you know what I’m saying. And the amount of time the flick devotes to these people who don’t share a common language is extraordinary. Of course they make a cute couple, that’s not the issue, although I’m starting to forget what the issue is.
You can’t get away from the racial stuff, the strange manners in which they choose to represent these issues, and what it basically comes down to which is a contemporary veneer on anachronistic events. Tensions with other white pilots result in a many-on-one-brawl at the Officers Bar, are completely resolved once people start accepting the fact that these chaps are really good pilots, and deserve respect after saving their asses during a bombing run. There’s hugging, the shaking of hands, and the breaking down of ethnic barriers, but none of it really looked that convincing, even as it moved me somewhat. It’s hard not to be moved by the idea of racial harmony, of people having the scales from their eyes for the first time, being forced to see people they previously regarded as sub-human as human. It’s just that here, as I was watching it, I was thinking, “Nah, bet this never happened to these chaps.”
These problems I had with it, and plenty more, didn’t detract from the enjoyment I derived from watching the air combat. I’m a sucker for it, I’ve already admitted to it, and if Lucas and the ostensible director got one thing right, it was the combat. I can’t imagine Lucas caring about the inert dialogue about drunks trying to live up to their father’s expectations, or the realities of (non-existent) racial integration during the war. He’s just interested in the technical stuff, in making these dogfights between World War II planes and jets look like X-Wings and TIE fighters, and he devotes all his energies thusly, to good effect.
But you can’t expect people trying to make a commercial product to emphasise the reality over the story. As an example, one of the pilots, nicknamed Junior, is shot down and captured by the Germans, and sent to POW camp Stalag 18. As the only African American pilot in captivity, the officers planning a breakout can trust him, because they know he can’t be a German spy. He has a whole story that could be an interesting film in itself, but it’s relegated to an unsatisfying subplot with even less payoff than the romantic angle.
The so-called Tuskegee Airmen faced personal and institutional racism before, during and after the war, and their story is a worthy one. It’s too much to expect that a flick like this would tell their complicated and involved story in a complicated and involved way. Most of the actors acquit themselves well, and they honour the men they’re standing in for, regardless of how workmanlike their dialogue and their contrived conflicts.
If it inspires people to find out more about their achievements, like a good documentary would, and I know there are a few, then it wasn’t all just flash and noise, signifying nothing, but worthwhile.
It was fun. And, as well, admitting the low bar this represents, it’s way, way better than Pearl Harbor.
7 times Terrence Howard has the strangest accent compared to his appearance of any actor I’ve ever heard who’s not Christopher Walken out of 10
“Oh my God, they are African!” – despite the connection, it’s never going to inspire me to read Gravity’s Rainbow ever again – Red Tails