World War II-Era Tuskegee Airmen Fly in ‘Red Tails’

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CHICAGO – The courage of the Tuskegee Airmen cannot be denied. The all African American World War II fighter pilot squadron not only braved battle, but also the virulent prejudice of the 1940s. The new film “Red Tails” chronicles the circumstance of that squadron, with a sappy and overlong treatment.

What is amazing, and almost funny, is that the film is almost as clichéd as the worst of the World War II and post-war star spangled, fighting men movie. All the pilots have wistful nicknames and stories that might eventually lead to doom, which is not too far from the old “kid from Brooklyn” that was so beloved in the old films, only to meet his demise on the battlefield. And in trying to cover everything, the debate of the black airman and his adventures, the film is stretched to a length that screams for the edit knife. On the plus side, the Tuskegee Airmen deserve this cinematic honor, and the special effects of air battle are top notch.

The film wisely begins in the midst of the war, near the end in 1944. The Tuskegee “experiment” (as the Army Air Corp calls it) has mostly flown reconnaissance and light duty missions. Hungry for battle, they are represented at the Pentagon by the “Old Man,” Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard). He wants to prove to the Army Air Corp that his men can handle any mission. They are finally approved for bomber escort detail by Major General Luntz (Gerald McRaney), over the objections of Southerner Col. Mortamus (Bryan Cranston).

David Oyelowo (Joe ‘Lightning’ Little) in ‘Red Tails’
David Oyelowo (Joe ‘Lightning’ Little) in ‘Red Tails’
Photo credit: LucasFilm Ltd.

This mission makes the action-oriented squadron ecstatic. There is Marty, nicknamed “Easy” (Nate Parker), “Ray Gun” (Tristan Wilds), “Joker” (Elijah Kelley), “Winky” (Leslie Odom Jr.), “Lightning” (David Oyelowo), “Smoky” (Ne-Yo) and “Sticks” (Method Man). They are led in Italy by Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a stoic, pipe smoking commander straight out of the newsreels. They live together, fight their demons and even love in the war-torn Europe, and eventually prove their worth to a nation that will still have prejudice when they come home.

This film was done with a sense of purpose and honor, which in essence makes it noble. George Lucas himself financed the film, bucking the trend of the studios who didn’t want to support an all-African American cast in a film. Lucas has said in interviews that he wanted the film out there for teenagers today, to see what men their age had to go through to both be a fighter pilot and stand up to the beliefs of the time. The film does accomplish that, but can’t help throwing in the kitchen sink of a romance, too many battle sequences and some wooden acting.

Again, with the nicknames and the gee-will-he-make-it type subplots, essentially Lucas has produced a film with the same John Wayne-type attitude as the the 1940s and ‘50s era films, full of All-American glory and dialogue that is straight out of the iron-jawed handbook. Especially with the African-American angle, it would have been a little more interesting to see the barriers, but that wasn’t the point of this film, so the two screenwriters and director (Anthony Hemingway) took the angle of the soldiers “coming together” rather than staying separate, and defeating the enemy.

Terrance Howard is remarkable as the “Old Man,” merely because he takes the same route as the older films, playing the Colonel as an example to his young charges, barking out discipline when necessary and holding up a shining beacon of leadership. Cuba Gooding Jr. was very interesting as the ground commander, I suspect he didn’t really know how to play the role, so was content to puff his prop pipe and stare heroically as a the boys flew into destiny. It sounds mocking, but really it’s just like the old war movies on Turner Classics.

Terrence Howard (Col. Bullard) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Col. Stance) in ‘Red Tails’
Terrence Howard (Col. Bullard) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Col. Stance) in ‘Red Tails’
Photo credit: LucasFilm Ltd.

The younger cast members, portraying the pilots, do a good job reigning in the modern exuberance, as culturally the men of those times were more serious. There was one good exchange between two of the pilot characters regarding their background, for they were all over-achievers, most likely hand picked because of the “credit to their race” representations. It was a different world back then as far as a black man’s place in society, but the roots of that cultural attitude are still pervasive today, as the film reminds us.

When taking in the history of World War II, one of the great hidden benefits was how it uplifted the minority classes and women out of their “roles” and into jobs, positions and leadership opportunities, simply because as a nation there was a need for “all hands on deck.” The Tuskegee Airmen are a prime example of that benefit, a heroic group of men who were willing to serve a country that didn’t necessarily serve them.

“Red Tails” opens everywhere on January 20th. Featuring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Gerald McRaney, Byran Cranston, Nate Parker, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley and Method Man. Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, directed by Anthony Hemingway. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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