Producer George Lucas took on an ambitious project when he set out to make Red Tails. He had to finance it mostly himself because, as he later said in an interview, studios didn’t want to make the picture because there weren’t enough rolls for white people. (Check out this link at 5:00.) Interesting that liberal Hollywood tried to stop a film with an all-black cast. Political commentator Alfonzo Rachel would later say that Hollywood did so because they don’t want young blacks to start wanting to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen (our protagonists, the first black squadron to see combat in WWII), because if they do, they’ll learn that most of them, like most blacks of the time, were Republicans. While there might be something to this theory, I tend to think Hollywood’s reluctance has less to do with the racial politics of the ‘40s than with those of today. Certain stigmas on the portrayal of blacks in film can make it really hard to make a good movie with too many black characters. Red Tails bears the marks of these stigmas – not as deeply as some movies, but they’re there nonetheless. Consequently, a movie that could have been another Memphis Belle had to settle for being just another Flyboys. It has some good action and a few good lines along the way. It also contains one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in awhile, as Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to play the grizzled, old Major Stance. He spends the whole movie sucking on a pipe, doing his best General MacArthur impression. Hilarious. Terrence Howard does considerably better as Colonel Bullard. Red Tails works fine as a popcorn flick, but gets annoying at times because it thinks it’s in the same league as Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t.
The first reason for this is its total lack of intensity. For all the action, the squadron suffers two dead, one wounded and one captured through the whole movie. The text at the end says that the historical Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 men with more wounded, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the film. This is because, even as Red Tails seeks to tell a story disproving racist claims of the past, as I said above, it bears the marks of the racism of today. Hollywood continues to be afraid to portray black characters as having any flaws, needing to learn anything, or failing at anything they do. Consequently, we see ridiculous things in this movie. In addition to the lack of casualties, we actually see Lightning (David Oyelowo), the squadron hot shot, blow up a destroyer with machine gun fire. This is slightly more realistic than the destruction of the destroyer in Mega Piranha. Slightly.
You can see from Red Tails why it’s so hard to make good movies about black people. This movie never breaks a sweat. We know the Red Tails can’t lose, and can hardly suffer a setback, so there’s never any suspense or sense of danger. The movie tries to build up some tension with ominous talk of the new jet fighters the Germans are developing, but when it comes down to it at the climactic battle, even the most cutting-edge technology is no match for the coolness of Hollywood-packaged black guys.
When I saw The Memphis Belle, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I desperately wanted the bomber crew to make it home, and I wasn’t sure that they would. With Red Tails, I never worried.
What’s more, the film suffers from a drive to inflate the contribution its heroes made to the war. The film opens with a scene of white fighter pilots abandoning the bombers they are supposed to escort, and the line by a man on a bomber, “Damn those glory-grabbing bastards, again!” The bomber squadron is then cut to ribbons by the Germans. Later, a general tells Bullard that “We need to change the way we fight,” and he is giving the Red Tails a chance because he needs fighters that will stay with the bombers. The first time the Red Tails rendezvous with a bomb squadron, the pilots of the lead bomber are disappointed when they see that their escort is black. (Humorously, the black pilot they are looking at is several hundred feet away, and obscured by two canopies, and his whole body is covered, except for his eyes. How can they even tell?) Then, when the Red Tails refuse to chase a German “decoy squadron,” the bombers are shocked. “They’re giving up glory to save our asses!” Toward the end of the movie, a white squadron who is supposed to relieve the Red Tails fails to even show up. All this is, frankly, a loogie to the face of every non-black man who risked or sacrificed his life to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. Throughout the war, every flier on all sides knew that the job of the fighters was to protect the bombers, and non-black fighter pilots consistently did so. What is portrayed in Red Tails is nothing more than fiction concocted to make the Tuskegee Airmen seem revolutionary. The historical Red Tails fought with courage and dedication, but they did not turn the war around.
A lot of commentators have complained about a lack of interest in movies that focus on black people, and have blamed racism for it. But what racism is actually doing is taking the life out of such movies as they get made. Great war movies put us in the reality of the moment, to get some sense of the fear and the pain of war (if only through a glass, darkly). They have us wrestle with the questions the men wrestled with and make us understand the moral uncertainties that come even when you believe in what you’re fighting for. There is a moment in The Memphis Belle I will never forget, during the protagonists’ final mission. The copilot of the Belle is angry that he has spent the whole war in the cockpit, and doesn’t want to go home without being able to say he shot some Nazis. Before the last mission, he slips the tail gunner a pack of cigarettes to let him take over shooting for part of the mission. When the moment comes, he slips into the turret and begins blasting away. Before long, he knocks out a high-flying German fighter. He whoops with delight as the fighter plummets … Straight into an American Bomber. The bomber is cut in half, and the copilot listens, over the radio, to the pitiful wails of the men aboard as they plummet to their deaths. Obviously, words fail me. But I remember The Memphis Belle because the characters were real, not supermen. I jumped every time a bullet came through the wall of the plane. I felt with the plane medic as he struggled to save a wounded crew member, then wrestled with the urge to drop him out of the plane with a chute, hoping the Germans would take him to a hospital.
Something that’s interesting to note about Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg, a Jew, included a Jewish character in the story, named Mellish. For some reason, he made Mellish one of the least likable characters in the movie, and ultimately had him lose to (of all people) a Nazi in face to face combat. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to do this, but, whatever his reason, it shows a certain contemplative humility that either white guilt or black narcissism just won’t allow into films like Red Tails. If the makers of black cinema want to see a wider interest in their films, they need to start putting their characters in a realistic light.