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."
But Howard's brisk, effective performance is a reminder of what's missing elsewhere in the movie, an authoritative actor who can quickly flesh out a character, plus dialogue that has not been mechanically produced.
Cuba Gooding could do that too, but as second-in-command Major Emanuelle Stance, his job is looking thoughtful while finding different angles to chomp on his pipe. As chief mechanic "Coffee" Coleman, the great Andre Royo grumbles a lot about pilots mistreating his planes, although he does get to paint the tails in that aforementioned red.
British-born Oyelowo launches several interesting plot threads as daredevil Joe "Lightning" Little, including a romance with lovely Daniela Ruah, an American playing an Italian in a movie largely shot in Croatia and the Czech Republic. But Lightning's story strands seem to serve plot needs rather than pulling together a character.
For despite its flashy 21st Century thrills, "Red Tails" is a movie from the very old school of Why We Fight. The explanation for the content shortage lies in Hollywood studios' current formula for making sausage, er, movies.
In a recent appearance with Jon Stewart, Lucas d escribed "Red Tails" as old-fashioned, corny and "inspirational to teen-age boys." He also placed it as the middle of trilogy, albeit one that may never get made. Episode One would be the trials the airmen faced before the war. Episode Three would be the continuing racism they faced when they returned home. Episode Two is not about character or social issues, but getting asses in seats, with explosions.
Even with those limitations, though, the episode that Lucas got made provides some corrective to decades of all-white "greatest generation" epics. The absence of black fighting men, and women, from American history has been one of those little fibs white people tend to tell each other to keep ourselves confused and ignorant.
Estimates vary, but perhaps one-fifth of Revolutionary War rebels were non-whites of various heritages. Those yeomen farmers and mechanics? They may have been enthusiastic about drilling with their local militias, but when the time came to march off and fight, many preferred to send slaves, servants and apprentice boys in their place.
A good example came from New Jersey. Samuel Sutphen of Branchburg, who left a memoir of his service, was bought specifically to fight in place of his new owner. For Sutphen, the lure was the promise of freedom at fighting's end — which went unfulfilled. On the other hand, Rhode Island fielded a regiment of free black soldiers, with white officers, 85 years before Civil War "Glory."
On the other side, tens of thousands — at a minimum — of slaves ran for British lines, many across New Jersey. In Monmouth, Essex and Bergen (which included Hudson) counties, blacks served in front-line engagements and raids. "Refugeetown" on Sandy Hook was home base for several multi-racial guerrilla groups, including that commanded by the daring runaway slave "Colonel Tye."
You're not likely to see movies about Samuel Sutphen or Colonel Tye, or even about the 10th Cavalary "Buffalo Soliders" and other blacks who did the heavy fighting at San Juan Hill, only for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders to sneak off with the credit in the white press.
Against that background, "Red Tails" certainly fills a gap in the movie version of our American heritage. And with its open skies, gleaming planes and great balls of fire, it provides exciting action. In modern Hollywood, that's close to being inspirational.