Watching ‘Red Tails’ With the Real Tuskegee Airmen

“We were a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement”

 

Racism in the Army during WWII. Who thinks about this? Who talks about this? Yet segregation was thriving in war torn skies over Europe. Tuskegee Airmen were African American fighter pilots who escorted and protected U.S. bombers.

"We were a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement," said Tuskegee Airman Major Joe Gomer. This 332 Fighter Group, paved the way for a black president. Some 150 airmen perished out of 450 who eventually won the hearts of their white majors. This struggle required that African Americans resort to their skill as fighter pilots, their courage and their regard for each other to command respect from the "white" folk in the military.

"What do you want to be called if not 'colored'?" A white officer asks.

"Negro," the airman shouts.

When these African American fighter pilots prove their skill, they are awarded new planes. They paint these with red tails hence the name of the film, "Red Tails."

Segregation began in the War Department of the Army which set up rigid requirements intended to exclude many applicants without the proper education. The only time black and white troops bunked together was in German POW camps. In 2007 the Congressional Medal was awarded to the Tuskegee Airmen. Our nation waited 50 years to thank these men for saving our butts.

At a recent screening I had the privilege of meeting a few of the Tuskegee Airmen. Rosco Draper, their flight instructor, who was 92, and a retired Lieutenant Colonel Cornelius Gaither, their neurosurgeon, who was 91. Lieutenant Colonel Gaither graciously allowed his photo to be taken with me. After the screening he was at a table where T-shirts were being sold.

“How did you like the film?”  I asked. 

“I thought it was wonderful,” he said somberly.

It was a tough question to ask him and tougher for him to answer because while this film directed by Anthony Hemingway is about heroes, patriotism, the triumph of the human spirit, it is not worthy of the Tuskegee Airmen and their bravery.

George Lucas produced "Red Tails" with 93 million of his own money — mind you he is worth $3 billion. He claims this is his last film. But a noble and valiant recording of history needs to be handled with kid gloves and not glamorized with music inserted to indicate to the audience how to feel. Only the playing of the Andrew sisters brought back real memories of the tragic period of history. "Red Tails" longs for a more documentary approach and samplings of real live footage of WWII.

As to the cast, the same problem exists. Cuba Gooding Jr., as Major Emmanuelle Stance, does not have the gravitas for the part. He seems to be mugging or posing throughout and has little identification with the character which calls for a Denzel Washington, a Morgan Freeman, a Lawrence Fishburne, or a Forrest Whittaker. Same problem exists with Terrence Howard as Colonel A.J. Bullard, though he fares better. Howard seems to have somewhat of a grasp of the character, but still lacks the genuine power and personality of a colonel.

But what these two leading men lack in stature, the supporting cast makes up for in aces:. Michael B. Jordan (Maurice "Bumps" Wilson), David Oyelowo (Joe "Lightning" Little), Tristan Wilds (Ray "Junior" Gannon), Method Man, (Sticks), Andre Royo (Chief "Coffee" Coleman), Ne-Yo (Andrew "Smokey" Salem), Elijah Kelly (Samuel "Joker" George), and particularly Nate Parker (Marty "Easy" Julian).

These fine thespians form an ensemble that drives home the point that camaraderie equals bravery and success and represent the Tuskegee Airmen. They dispel any prejudice and racism through their authentic team work and respect for each other. Each man plays his part effectively and with the right attitude and spirit.

Joe Little dies a hero and David Oyelowo portrays his death poignantly.

Still, John Ridley’s script is bland and has a soap opera quality. But there are moments when confronting racism that it has power.

Lucas' air battles are interesting, engaging and at times frightening to watch. But a less trite script could have lifted "Red Tails" with its valiant, honorable and heroic history of the Tuskegee Airmen from this film's level of  mediocrity.