After decades of trying, George Lucas has finally succeeded in bringing the story of World War II's heroic Tuskegee Airmen to the big screen in "Red Tails."
Well, part of the story.
Filled with exciting computer-generated action, "Red Tails" captures events in 1944 when the 332nd Fighter Group, comprised solely of African-American fighter pilots, finally got its chance at crucial action in the skies over Italy and Germany.
There are killer dogfights, exploding trucks, exploding trains, exploding ships, exploding planes and what else you got that explodes? Fighters swoop low over targets and plunge precipitously while streaming smoke as pilots pull Gs while doing abrupt turns and rolls, climbing for the heavens, laugh, holler and dodge bullets pinging through their canopies.
There are Italian-like coastlines, villages and women, all looking scenic. There are card games and drinking, casual conversations with heavy foreshadowing, men in crisp uniforms, saluting crisply and promising to do their duties. There's a Jewish guy, a Southerner, an Irish guy... Oh wait, they are all black guys.
For this is really the story of how, strained to the limit, America's racist military establishment turned to African-Americans to help win the war. That story might include the bigotry these men had to overcome just to be considered for training as pilots — at field built by black contractors just 40 miles from an existing pilot training center, which in the Jim Crow South was "whites only."
It might have included details of the extreme perseverance and self-discipline needed by these would-be pilots, enrolled in a program that effectively served as a quota, with a ceiling on the number of those who would ever be accepted. It might have showed incidents like the reassignment of the training officer for the first class of Tuskegee airmen, the 99th Fighter Pursuit Group, after he asserted that white civilians should obey his black base sentries.
In the absence of such details, we get: Lightning (David Oyelowo), the reckless ace with an eye for the ladies; Easy (Nate Parker), the by-the-book captain who drinks to cope with stress; Junior (Tristan Wilds), the youngster who wants to prove he belongs; Smokey (Ne-Yo), who speaks as though he is reviving Richard Pryor's Mudbone character. And so on.
To their credit, Lucas and his collaborators recognize there should be back stories. Director Anthony Hemingway and writers John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (from John B. Holway's book) shine some light on the pervasive discrimination these pilots overcame. The movie opens with a brutal quote from a ridiculous 1925 "report" by the U.S. Army War College about why blacks cannot be soldiers.
As commanding officer Col. A.J. Bullard, Terrence Howard has several good scenes at the Pentagon, jousting with white officers like the open racist played by Bryan Cranston, trying to shut down what he views as a dangerous experiment.
"We have the right to fight for our country the same as any other American," Howard tells him. "We will not go away."