Monday, January 14, 2013

Red Tails

Directed by Anthony Hemingway.
2012. Rated PG, 125 minutes.
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Nate Parker
David Oyelowo
Tristan Wilds
Marcus T. Paulk
Leslie Odom Jr.
Andre Royo

World War II marked the first time in American history that units of black soldiers were put on the front lines against a foreign enemy. Eventually, this would include a unit of fighter pilots. Some credit for this is due to the simple necessities of winning a war. However, it’s still a near-miraculous achievement given the climate of our country at the time. As the quote that appears at the beginning of Red Tails tells us, blacks were thought to be genetically deficient in the areas of intelligence and courage with not enough of the former to fly a plane and not enough of the latter for any facet of war. Of course, this ignores the fact that all-black units fought 80 years earlier in The Civil War (see Glory). Then again, racism often ignores logic. How ridiculous is it that the military so purposefully segregated itself that thousands of its members practically had to beg to fight for their country even though they all signed up with the knowledge that dying in the line of duty is a distinct possibility.

To prove the theory of white superiority, the U.S. government commissioned a sociological study. A number of students from the all-black Tuskegee University were sent through the same rigorous testing and training hopeful white pilots underwent. The hypothesis going in was that all of these guys would wash out, thus proving the inferiority of the black race. After all, if the cream of the crop couldn’t rise to the occasion who would? Of course, many Tuskegee kids successfully completed the program. They were then maligned to their little squadron, the 332nd, and charged with flying practically meaningless patrols hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from the action. They were bored and itching to prove themselves. This is where Red Tails picks up.

Pretty quickly, we meet our cast of would-be heroes. There’s the curmudgeonly old leader Major Stance (Gooding Jr.), the reserved squad leader Easy (Parker), we’re going with nicknames here, the talented but rambunctious loose cannon Lightning (Oyelowo), the super-southern hillbilly Smokey (Ne-Yo) and an assortment of other stock characters. These are all fun folks, but lack any sort of depth. They are personas already fully formed by whatever baggage they with them into the Tuskegee. The things they go through during our time with them is mostly generic stuff recycled from too many movies. What should be a collection of truly compelling men is reduced to a group of clichés in blackface. Only their leader, the crusading Colonel Bullard (Howard) escapes this fate. However, his screen-time is severely limited.

It would have helped if the movie had picked up earlier in the proceedings. By not seeing them go through the training program, we never get a real sense of their struggle. An old adage of storytelling is that it’s better to show than tell. RT would be a much more effective film if it had shown us what these people went through rather than just mentioning it once or twice. This means the audience is left to draw on whatever their own knowledge and opinions about race relations in America both now and during the first half of the 20th century. Therefore, how we feel about the characters is open to a broad range of interpretations from raging militant support to disinterested apathy. We’re left with something that should be, but is not more than an action flick about fighter pilots.

In fact, RT hangs its hat on the action sequences. They are beautifully shot and exciting. Planes get shot down, crash and burn pretty good. The same goes for trains, ships and even an entire base. Mid-battle banter between our heroes is cheesy, but in an entertaining way. It gives us a few chuckles to go with the violent eye-candy. These scenes come at a fast enough rate that even though the movie doesn’t connect with us the way it wants to, it doesn’t bore us, either.

For what it actually is, RT really isn’t that bad. Sure, it feels like rehashed material but the guys are pleasant enough to root for and those “dog fights” are excellent. It’s light, forgettable fare that zips by like one of the Germans’ (then) new-fangled jet planes.

Unfortunately, because of the subject it chooses to tackle, we have to judge this particular film on what it is not. RT is not a gripping historical drama. It offers very little perspective, if any, on what these men meant to their country or race. I fear its shortcomings as a potential teacher are behind the extremely negative reviews. While certainly not a great movie, it isn’t the scourge of cinema it’s made out to be. Though, to be fair, HBO made a better movie on the same subject, The Tuskegee Airmen (1995), in which (a much younger) Cuba Gooding Jr also appears. I encourage you to seek out that one. It will give you a better feel for what these men went through. RT is just sorta fun.

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