I had three sets of childhood heroes. They were cowboys, baseball players and the Tuskegee Airmen. The first two were courtesy of film/TV westerns and (mostly) radio broadcasts. My father, a proud Tuskegee alum and World War II veteran wounded in combat, was responsible for the third. He constantly talked about these famed pilots' exploits. Before turning 10 I could rattle off such stats as 996 pilots, 15,000 ground personnel, 1,578 missions flown, 95 distinguished flying crosses awards, even their operational aircraft (P-40 Warhawk, P-39 Airacroba, P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft). My dad was greatly offended such '60s network fare as Combat and 12 O'Clock High totally ignored not only the Airmen, but all black units in the European and Pacific campaigns.
He didn't live to see either HBO's 1995 The Tuskegee Airmen or the far superior Red Tails, which opened Friday at more than 2,500 theaters nationwide. But he definitely would have applauded the latter, and be especially glad someone in Hollywood finally thought their story worth telling in an expansive manner. He also would not have would not have been the least bit surprised it took 23 years, and someone with producer George Lucas' clout and finances ($58 million of his own money) to get it made. Indeed, one weakness of Red Tails is that it was initially envisioned as a three-part epic. Instead, the tale has been condensed into one often inspiring but cramped two-hour-plus spectacle blending politics, suspense and a love story with remarkable aerial photography.
Lucas' lone contribution beyond the executive producing/fiscal end was directing (along with visual effects supervisor Craig Hammock) the 60 minutes of dips, flips, dives and theatrics that depict in graphic and accurate fashion air combat's dance with death. Thankfully, though, there's no attempt to make this a World War II version of Star Wars. The death and destruction in Red Tails aren't cartoonish or funny, but brutal and final.
First-time film director Anthony Hemingway (better known for HBO projects The Wire and Treme) has done an effective job with a tightly written story by John Ridley that contains just enough social edge to adequately — if not viscerally — reflect the overt racism that prevailed even in a wartime environment. Ridley doesn't deify the pilots or overplay their earnestness and suffering. Within the segregated barracks there are plenty of card games and sports contests, swapped insults and interpersonal conflict.
Flight leader "Easy" (Nate Parker) has a drinking problem. His reckless wingman "Lightning" (the excellent David Oyelowo) often forsakes his team and disobeys Easy's orders, yet also criticizes Easy's demons. The Airmen's main advocate in Washington (Terrence Howard) doesn't want excuses or pity from his men, just excellence. He challenges superior officers behind closed doors and has tons of confidence in himself and his men, but doesn't want them crushed by the ugly attitudes they face. The same holds true for his second in command (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), whose stolid posture and manner mask his feelings of disdain for the treatment given the Airmen.
The movie's other problem comes from the decision made by Ridley, screenplay collaborator Aaron McGruder and Hemingway to underplay rather than overplay the depth of the odds the Airmen faced. Only a handful of instances throughout Red Tails directly confront the racism the pilots faced, but it doesn't simmer and burn throughout the film. Outside of one fight between Lightning and a racist pilot in an all-white officers club (which doesn't even bring a court-martial), much of the animus the Airmen struggled against takes second fiddle to their brilliance in the air.
That was no doubt a smart decision from the standpoint of attracting an audience. A 125-minute polemic on the evils of white America in wartime might please those in the hard left/black nationalist community, but they'd be death to any chances of Red Tails attaining blockbuster status — a goal, to Lucas, that represents not only mythic resonance but a chance for black audiences and filmmakers to get the upgrade in production value and scope they've long demanded. But it comes at the cost of the more complex story we know we're not being shown. Likewise, while wartime stats and stories reaffirm there were a number of black airmen stationed in Germany and Italy who had interracial romances, it's hard to imagine they were as rosy and unchallenged as the one shown between Lightning and a charming Italian woman (NCIS-Los Angeles' Daniela Ruah). Even with the language barrier, there never seems any racial tension in their relationship, and her family welcomes him with open arms.
The audience sees the Airmen at the beginning confined to routine, mundane missions, enlivened only by the chance to occasionally blow up a train or ship. Then things shift to the intrigue in Washington, where Howard's character, facing a call for the end to the pilots' program, demands his men get their chance. Subsequently, they excel, then are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. As escort planes for bombers, they must avoid the very thing that's every pilot's dream. Instead of going after enemy planes, they must get the bombers safely to their target. Against that backdrop, the Tuskegee Airmen succeed so well they break down the disdain and hatred many white pilots have towards them.
Red Tails includes its fair share of tragedy, including the death of a beloved figure near the end. But because they can't tell the whole story, some vital parts were omitted. For instance, the stateside battle to establish the Tuskegee Airmen began in 1939. Under pressure from a coalition of civil rights leaders that included the NAACP's Walter White, labor union leader A. Phillip Randolph and Judge William Hastie, Congress passed Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 that contained an amendment designating funds for training black pilots. The War Department rerouted those funds into civilian flight schools that were willing to train black Americans. It also took much longer than shown here before the Tuskegee Airmen got quality aircraft, or were recognized by the military for their achievements.
On the other hand, literalists are carping about the implication every plane was equipped with cameras to provide the footage shown in the flight meetings, while others in the social-media sphere are complaining about Lucas' hardcore PR campaign, which has implied the future of black cinema depends on Red Tails being a hit. Both these things are far besides the point. Red Tails isn't perfect nor as comprehensive as it should be, but it's a lot better than anything about this unit that's come so far in the feature-film department. Now, perhaps Lucas or someone else will eventually get around to making a prequel and sequel — so the full story can be told in all its glory.