“Red Tails,” directed by Anthony Hemingway. Adapted from the book by John B. Holway.
Unfortunately for the film-going public, most critics gave “Red Tails” short shrift, but I thought it deserved better. “Red Tails” is to be looked at as neither a war film nor an antiwar film, but as a film about racial prejudice and segregation of Blacks in the military during World War II. It focuses on the Tuskegee airmen of the Army Air Corps, and thankfully contains less pro-American jingoism than most movies about World War II.
Black musician Terence Blanchard, who wrote the soundtrack, said on an NPR talk show that George Lucas, who produced the film, had been trying to make “Red Tails” for 23 years. No studio wanted to back it. Lucas then put up $50 million of his own money.
Once it was in the can, so to speak, he couldn’t find a distributor. No one was interested in taking on a film about Black World War II fighter pilots. So Lucas ante-upped another $50 million to get it on screens; propitiously, it was released during Black History Month. It was in theaters during the NAACP awards show on TV, at which surviving Tuskegee airmen in the audience received special recognition, and George Lucas, a commendation for his efforts.
“Red Tails” opens with a quote from a 1925 Army War College study, which concluded that Blacks were unsuitable to serve in the military due to their lack of intelligence, ambition, and courage. Yet due to pressure from civil rights groups, Congress, and the Black press, a Black squadron was formed. The unit, backed by an entire service arm, consisted of officers and over 400 enlisted men. By mid-1942, over six times that many were stationed there, but only two squadrons were in training. After basic training, it moved to the nearby Tuskegee Army Air Field, in Alabama. Consequently, Tuskegee became the only Army installation performing all phases of in-depth pilot training at a single location.
The film takes place in Italy during 1944, where the pilots—depicted in the movie by mostly unknown actors who made up a composite of the airmen—flew bomber escort missions in old P-40s held together by the likes of chicken wire and chewing gum. The dialogue is clunky in some scenes. In fact, one of the surviving airmen, Lt. Col. Jefferson, who had seen the film, stated in an interview that the pilot banter was strictly make-believe Hollywood stuff. “If that kind of conversation would have gone on, Colonel Davis [A. J. Bullard, played by Terrence Howard in the film] would have court-martialed us.”
The dialogue between the pilots during the combat scenes seems “forced and out of place,” he said, “and most characters were two-dimensional.” Still that shouldn’t take away from the historic significance of WWII Black fighter pilots proving to their white cohorts and officials in the Pentagon that they were suited to the task.
In an early suspenseful scene, hot-dog pilot, “Lightning” Joe Little (David Oyelowo), disobeys orders and shoots up and destroys a German ordinance supply train. Soon, Bullard travels to the Pentagon to demand that the Army leaders allow the Black squadron a combat opportunity, and give them newer planes. Major Emmanuel Stance, played by Cuba Gooding Junior, was the commanding officer of the squadron; he basically stood around clenching a pipe between his teeth, a la MacArthur.
The film’s strength is the very realistic action scenes, in which the airmen display their skills and aggressiveness in the dogfights between planes while escorting four-engine prop-driven bombers piloted by whites against the stereotyped German pilots. The airmen nicknamed the German leader “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen), whose face bears an ear-to-chin scar. Reporting on his intercom, he expresses his astonishment, “The enemy pilots are all Africans!”
On their first mission into Europe—Berlin, to be exact—the airmen, in new Mustang P-51 propeller fighter planes with their distinguishing, freshly painted red tails, were successful in distracting and shooting down German jet planes so that white American cohorts could accomplish their goal. Not shown, however, is the damage on the ground caused by their bombs. Berlin was devastated by U.S. and British air attacks, with a third of its housing wiped out during the war and with an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 dead civilians.
The race issue comes up in a scene in a village. Lightning enters an officers’ club frequented by white pilots and is told, “This is an officers’ club, get out of here, nigger!” Lightning’s reaction lands him in the brig, where Bullard dresses him down, and then ends up telling him that he is the best pilot they’ve got. Jarringly anachronistic is a scene of the men in a “football huddle” pep talk and another when someone advised a buddy to “man up.”
According to Jefferson’s interview, the Black pilots were eventually transferred to a Michigan airbase for a combat readiness assignment, where they had fewer privileges than the German POWs who also were there; he felt that there should have been a scene showing the German POWs enjoying more freedom because “white people, even our enemies, had more rights.”
Military desegregation began July 26, 1948, when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which states, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” The order was not fully implemented until October 1953.
In 2007, President G. W. Bush honored Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Medal of Honor—six decades late. Now, there needs to be a film about something equally, if not more, egregious: Japanese men, U. S. citizens, who enlisted to fight for a country that rounded them up, forced them off their lands and farms, and incarcerated them and their families in U.S. internment camps. George Lucas? Anybody?
> The article above was written by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith, and first appeared in the March 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.