Saturday, January 21, 2012
NOW SHOWING: Red Tails
“Red Tails” has everything that is wrong with a Hollywood history movie. It takes a story it claims is “inspired by true events” and uses those true events to structure an edifice of sappitude. In the tradition of atrocities like “Wind Talkers”, you can check off all the aspects that depress war movie lovers like me. Trite musical score – check. Sappy dialogue – check. Cliches – check. Stereotype characters – check. Gross exaggeration of historical events – check. Ridiculously over the top explosions – check. Pious moralizing – check. Evil Nazi antagonist – check. Tacked in romance - check
The movie begins with the unit limited to ground missions which at least allows them to blow up a train with lots of pyrotechnics. We are introduced to the usual stereotypes. The two main characters are “Lighting” Little (David Oyelowo) hot shot pilot, ladies man, disobedient (you know the type) and “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) – bottle-hitter with daddy issues. Not to mention the super religious guy (Black Jesus fan), the field hand (for comic relief), the rookie, the grumpy crew chief, etc. We bounce back and forth from the air base to the Pentagon where the racists are trying to disband the unit because they do not shoot down German fighters. How can they when they aren’t given a chance?! (“Glory” be!)
When they are given a chance we are treated to set pieces that include their incredibly successful first dogfight (reminiscent of “Fly Boys” CGI whirling chaos), the strafe-destruction of an air field, the strafe-destruction of a German destroyer by “Lightning”, and a tangle with German jet fighters (which includes a duel between Lightning and Pretty Boy!). You get to catch your breath in between with the requisite romance between “Lightning” and a white Italian woman named Sophia (Daniella Ruah), Pentagon racism versus simmering give-us-a-chance-you-racist-bastard posturing, conflict between the hot shot and the rule-follower, and trite airmen banter.
The big breakthrough comes when the 332nd Fighter Group volunteers to provide close escort for the white bomber crews. Do you think they will gain the respect of the white crews? Will there be a scene where one of the blacks is refused admittance to an officers’ club followed later by a scene where the blacks are bonhommed at the same club? Guess.
If you took a shot every time someone says something cringe-inducing in this movie, you would be drunk very soon. Here’s a very limited sampler:
“They done shot down the whole Luftwaffer.”
“Lightning, when are you going to learn this is not a game?”
“How you like that, Mr. Hitler?”
“Die, you foolish African” (spoken by the Nazi “Pretty Boy”)
Surprisingly, the “true events” are ball-park true. They were limited to just ground missions which resulted in talk of disbanding based on lack of kills. They did participate in ground support for the invasion of Pantelleria (Operation Shingle in the movie). They did sink a destroyer. They did earn a reputation for disciplined escorting of bombers. They did successfully take on ME-262’s in a raid on a tank parts factory outside Berlin. The problem is all of these are grossly exaggerated in the movie.
The Tuskegee Airmen deserve a good movie. Now they have two strikes against them and it is highly unlikely they will ever get their just reward. George Lucas’ “Red Tails” is the second strike (the first was HBOs “Tuskegee Airmen”). I had eagerly waited for this movie because I teach about the Tuskegee Airmen, but the commercials gave me an inkling of my disappointment (although the CGI was not that bad in the movie) and then there was a pre-movie trailer for the new 3D “The Phantom Menace” to remind me of the damage Lucas is capable of. Premonition confirmed.
FACT OR FICTION?
1. None of the characters are real. Howard’s character, Col. Bullard, is obviously based on Benjamin Davis, Jr. The personification is pretty close to Davis. He did insist the unit not leave the bombers when they got the escort job.
2. The painting of the tails red began with the P-47s (this stage was skipped in the movie). I found no evidence that the color was foisted on them as a racial slur. It makes more sense that they chose it for the flamboyance.
3. They were assigned ground support duties that avoided air combat. The lack of kills did provide fodder for opponents in Washington who wanted the unit disbanded. The conversations in the movie get the basics right, but the unit was never on the edge of being disbanded.
4. Their first combat mission was in support of the landing on Pantelleria. It was successful, but not nearly as exciting as in the movie since there was no enemy contact in the air.
5. Surprisingly, the destroyer incident was fairly accurate. Two of the pilots did sink a German destroyer through strafing. It was the only incident of its type in the war.
6. Although the movie does not make a big deal of it, the unit did not have a spotless record of never losing an escorted bomber as legend holds it. Recent scholarship sets the number at around 25 lost. The unit was well-respected by the bomber units.
7. They did have a mission against a tank parts factory outside Berlin where they ended up going all the way. They did encounter German jets and shot down three. They got the Distinguished Unit Citation for this mission.
8. The romance is unrealistic because Italian women were discouraged from hooking up with African-Americans.
After researching the real story, I have to admit the movie was accurate enough to be commended. If only the dialogue had been better and the actual facts had not been exagerrated so much.
Rating - 6