Perhaps with the arrival Black History Month one might be compelled to travel to the nearby Cineplex and experience a film supposedly chronicling one of the most important events in American history: The formation of the Tuskegee Airmen.
However, Red Tails is not that film.
Substituting war movie clichés for an adherence to historical accuracy, Red Tails represents a serious missed opportunity to finally tell the story of the great World War II squadron, who, while operating in segregated forces, sought to prove that they could serve their country as effectively as their white counterparts.
The film stars David Oyelowo as Joe “Lightning” Little, a brash young airman who is always going against the hierarchy of his commanding officers; Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuel Stance, who wants his troops to have the same quality aircraft as their white counterparts fighting in the war; and Bryan Cranston, who questions whether these “colored fighters” really have the mental fortitude for battle.
In real life, the airmen struggled against white prejudice and segregation for a chance to prove themselves in the heat of battle and far exceeded expectations. The airmen were decorated with almost 100 Distinguish Flying Crosses and set the stage for the President Harry Truman’s order desegregating America’s armed forces in 1948.
But despite their bravery and importance in our country’s win over the Germans, they still returned to civilian life facing Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination.
As compelling as this story was in real life, much of the drama of the airmen’s journey toward acceptance is lost in Red Tails as the film seeks to acknowledge the men without spending too much time focusing on the challenges they actually faced.
The result is a film that comes across more as a comic book-like monument to itself rather than a serious depiction of a landmark moment in African-American history.
The movie never bothers to delve into some obvious questions: How did the Tuskegee Airmen come into being? Why were the men who served chosen, and how did they feel defending a country that would not see them without suspicion and discrimination regardless of how decorated they were?
Instead of probing deeply into these men’s lives, the film takes a traditional action adventure disposition, seeking to not offend the sensibilities of anyone in the audience. But by taking this stance, it becomes offensive by labeling racial discrimination an issue that was quite easily overcome once the establishment realized how effective the black troops could be.
This robs younger viewers (whom the film was obviously geared toward) of the reality that the systemic nature of discrimination took years to transform, and that history can’t be ignored because it may offend someone’s idealistic view of America.
In Red Tails we have a film which gives the impression that doubt about the black airmen was essentially handled with an inspiring speech by Terrence Howard, backed by sweeping horns and trailer ready self-importance
“We have the right to fight for our country!” Howard says to the skeptical Cranston. “Let my men have a chance.”
I realize the movie means well, and maybe the creators, including executive producer George Lucas (who has been trying to bring this story to the big screen for decades before deciding to finance it with much of his own money), and director Anthony Hemingway deserve some credit for calling attention to the contributions of this important elite squadron.
But by placing the film in the backdrop of a strangely idyllic World War II setting where the airmen’s exploits quite easily break down the walls of inequality, the film misses a chance to use the medium of film to educate viewers on a painful time in American history when Jim Crow was the law of the land and proud speeches about “giving the black pilots a chance” would have been roundly dismissed by the Armed Forces community at the time.
Perhaps no story from World War II deserves a great film adaptation more than the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. But by going with Saturday morning thrills rather than a deep historical reflection of the time, Hollywood does a disservice to these brave heroes.
For their great sacrifice, they deserved more.