Red Tails, The Brother Dash Review
This past weekend I went to see the film Red Tails. Red Tails focuses on the all black 332nd airborne division of the U.S. Army during WW2 more commonly known as the “Tuskegee Airmen”. Please avail yourselves of the power of the internet for quick education if you are unfamiliar with the Tuskegee Airmen or their importance in American and World History.
As Film Entertainment
First and foremost movies, especially Hollywood films, are meant to entertain. And I begin with discussing Red Tails in this context because it is critical to understanding how one should contexualize one’s own reaction. Red Tails is not a documentary on the heroism and courage of young Black men in segregated mid 20th century America. It is a $58 million dollar George Lucas backed production that uses the story of the Tuskegee Airmen as a focal point for entertaining an audience. And entertain it does. Lucas is known for providing great visuals and action sequences in his films. His film projects are not known however for great storytelling. He is also not a social documentarian. So when I look at Red Tails against that backdrop then I can actually appreciate what it IS and not what people may try to make it out to be. The film does a great job with battle sequences and cockpit realism especially when the pilots are taking fire. The film is also masterfully shot with a color palette, luminosity and texture that brings 1944 to 21st century life. The director also does an adequate job with pacing the film. My only major gripe with even this last point is that things move perhaps too quickly. The film’s African-American director, Anthony Hemingway, in his directorial debut was 1st Asst. Director for the acclaimed HBO series The Wire (which I feel is the best TV series ever created). But at times he seems more concerned with moving things along so he could get to the air battles.
The Acting and Writing
What makes me give Red Tails more of a B- as a film as opposed to a C+ is the quality of the acting. While Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding, jr. provide predictably solid performances…as actors I found Nate Parker’s “Easy” Julian, Tristan Wilds’ “Junior” and David Oyelowo’s “Lightning” to have carried the film. In fact the chemistry between “Easy” (who provided a stellar performance in The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington) and “Lightning” reminds me of a less comedic yet powerful pairing a la Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier in their buddy movies of the 1970’s. The acting helped to make up for some rather poor patriotic “gag worthy” writing. The paucity of good writing in film and television (with the exception perhaps of an HBO original series) is evident in Red Tails. Whether it is the somewhat stereotypical “aww shucks” writing of the character of Junior or the rather horribly unnuanced scripting of what any of the white characters say I found the writing to be rather poor. The interracial relationship between Lightning and Sophia, the Italian woman he meets after eyeing her from the rooftop as he flew over her home is never addressed as problematic from either her family, the town or the army. I found it far fetched that no one would even MENTION this obvious fact let alone have a problem with this black man walking through town arm in arm with this white woman in 1944 Italy! I realize Europe is supposed to be more tolerant in these matters but I still found it hard to believe. The only exception to the somewhat elementary writing would be in certain one liners such as when a character mentions how “bigotry is the exam that is given before the lesson is learned”. And to this point Red Tails sort of misses the mark in terms of its potential by not really showing more of the pain and senselessness of segregation and bigotry especially in what history considers the last “just war” if there is such a thing. The potentially poignant contrasts and connections one could make as a writer and filmmaker abound but those are largely lost in this film.
Mr. Lucas made a point of emphasizing that it took him 20 years to get the film made because Hollywood refused to back a film with an all black cast. I would argue that in reality he was saying Hollywood refused to back a film that had positive, unemasculated black men as protagonists with minor white male characters in less than supporting roles. That was the crux of the issue. This wasn’t Training Day or American Gangster or a Tyler Perry movie. My support for the film as far as a ticket buyer was based not only on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen but on the fact that it has Black male characters I could relate to as the protagonists. It isn’t just another sassy black mama in drag, corrupt cop, drug dealer or magic negro that makes the white male lead character discover his warm and fuzzy self (a la Legend of Bagger Vance or The Green Mile). Red Tails gives the audience at least an introduction to a subject they may be unfamiliar with and also a glimpse into the reality of racial politics in America. Especially for immigrants to the country or those outside of the U.S. it provides a bit of insight into why the Civil Rights movement was born and why to this day the legacy of segregation, bigotry and discrimination reverberates. For that reason alone the film is worth seeing. Is it a great film on its own merit? No. But how many “great” films are made every year? But it’s absolutely worth the price of admission for sure.
Brother Dash is a poet, social commentator and photoenthusiast based in New Jersey, USA.