The titular planes that tear across the skies in Red Tails (2012), financed and executive produced by George Lucas, were piloted by none other than the Tuskegee Airmen. I once met a Tuskegee Airman. An alumnus of Morehouse College, my alma mater, he was one of a number of luminaries set to receive a lifetime achievement award for his years of service in the community. He was a man whose then-enfeebled condition belied the amazing contribution he and his brethren made during the Second World War.
In our era of ever-present cynicism, it is refreshing to look back at a time when young men were drafted into military service and defended America with a sense of duty. With that being said, it’s difficult to glamorize the theatrical reproduction of these war films behind the guise of a dramatic shift in race relations on the big screen. Incorporating African Americans into the greater American jingoistic narrative does nothing to reconcile our history of institutionalized segregation on film. The war films that are typically thought of as great pictures—Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Saving Private Ryan, just to name a few—manage to display the action and spectacle of war while still recognizing its terribly destructive effect on human beings, but often they fail to examine race in a truly significant way. Despite having an all-black cast, Red Tails shies away from making any sort of real statement about race—or war, for that matter—and instead focuses on delivering an adrenaline-pumping journey through the skies.
The major narrative surrounding the film is George Lucas’s personal struggle to produce the film over the past 23 years. He soldiered on against studios that were too afraid of the financial ramifications of committing to a film with a majority black cast. On The Daily Show, Lucas proclaimed that studios felt the film wasn’t “green” enough, that they couldn’t market the film to the foreign audiences that make up 60% of a film’s bottom line; Lucas, the creator of the infamous Jar Jar Binks, was now chastising Hollywood for refusing to incorporate “brown” into its concept of “green.” He explained that Hollywood is afraid that African Americans onscreen will limit the potential earning power of films, even though African Americans buy a disproportionate amount of movie tickets. Interesting. Funnily enough, African American audiences internalized Lucas’s statements and rallied around Red Tails, urging their friends and families to support the film because no one wanted to see it made—the idea that “if we don’t support it no one will.” I prompted my Facebook friends to tell me their opinions on the film. No one actually replied with a comment about the film, but I received 10 Likes. 7 out of 10 were minorities, and I’ll categorize the other 3 as “sympathizers.” A small sample size to say the least, but the celebrity-laden world of Twitter seemed to mirror these sentiments:
“Just heard that RED TAILS was number 2 in the box office.” —Reverend Al Sharpton
“Its important that we all go support RED TAILS the movie and go see it this weekend!!!! Rt to da world pls!!! #Redtails” —Media mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs
“Going to see RED TAILS movie today and I have already seen it! Such an important story, so well done and MUST be supported opening weekend!” —Oprah confidant Gayle King
These are just a few examples, not even including the tweets from the Everyday Joe. This sudden solidarity from the African American community is by no means a negative thing. It is important to support films that offer a critical look into history, and that offer an alternative perspective on the much-revered American historical narrative. But the question that has begun to bubble under the surface of this mad push to recoup George Lucas’s money is, “Is Red Tails any good?”
To his credit, Lucas openly admitted that the film is a jingoistic romp more concerned with stylistic dogfights than a subtle plot, and that is undeniably where Red Tails shines. The aerial acrobatics of Lt. Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), and the rest of squadron are the film’s heart-pounding highlights. When I saw the movie, each time the Red Tails completed another mission the audience promptly erupted in applause. The actual narrative sorely lacked the pyrotechnic flair of the thrilling aerial sequences. The necessary beats of overt racism, proving one’s worth, and reluctant acceptance were all met on cue without much surprise. The narrative breaks that were refreshing, such as Lt. Julian’s alcoholism, were immediately neutralized by forced conventions, à la Little’s romantic involvement with an Italian woman. Casting also seemed to be an issue. Despite receiving top billing, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Stance acts in merely a supporting capacity and isn’t given anything particularly gripping to do or say. Also, choosing singer Ne-Yo for a comedic role, as slick-talking pilot Smokey, did not translate well, as the role would have much better suited a comic actor. Terrence Howard as Colonel Bullard, though, is solid, sternly staring down the establishment in Washington for the majority of the film. Tristan Wilds and Elijah Kelley also stand out in supporting roles. Red Tails is a fun film, but by no means does it transcend the genre, and it doesn’t aspire to.
It’s rather ironic that the Tuskegee Airmen are the subject of a supposed once-in-a-lifetime break in the race politics of the action/war film. The airmen were successful pilots, just as Red Tails has the potential to be a successful film; however, using sensationalist exoticism as a means of cultural inclusion is not what the airmen wanted or what audiences should deem as a step toward equality. Red Tails reminds us that not so long ago dark-skinned men who gave their lives for this country could not serve next to their fair-skinned brethren in battle. The underlying message here is that although the airmen shot down that barrier for African Americans in the military, the barrier still exists on the screen. Just as the airmen were segregated in their regiments, these actors are effectively segregated on screen; at least they’ve gotten a chance to be fun, patriotic, and inspiring, which is impressive in its own right.
Brandon Harrison is an observer and a commenter. He’s also an M.A. student in the Cinema and Media Studies program here at UCLA. Born in New Jersey, raised in New York, and seasoned in Atlanta, Brandon brings an inquisitive perspective to all things media. Follow him on Twitter @_brandonallen.