My recent review of "Red Tails" reminded me that it was not the first attempt to bring recognition to the 99th Fighter Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Others have commented on which version is better so I decided to rewatch “The Tuskegee Airmen” to weigh in on this debate.
“The Tuskegee Airmen” begins with the claim that it is “based on a true story”. The opening scene of a young African-American boy playing with a toy plane and then running after a crop duster sets the tone of clichéd sincerity. Unlike “Red Tails”, TA covers the training at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. On the way there, Hannibal (Lawrence Fishburne), Billy (Cuba Gooding), and Walter (Allen Payne) encounter Southern racism as Nazi prisoners of war are seated on the better part of the train. This was sadly based on fact.
The heterogeneous cast of fighter jocks (the hot shot, the steady hand, the pompous overachiever, the one with low self esteem, etc.) is introduced and soon we are wondering who will make it to the end of the movie. We are also introduced to the requisite racist trainer (Maj. Joy) who wears a pencil thin mustache to go with his sneer. You know, the kind of guy who if you met him on the street for the first time you would punch him in the face. He does not agree with this experiment with "nigger fliers" and does his best to sabotage it. In contrast to him is black Lt. Glynn (Courtney Vance), a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who has their back. Vance is his usual smoldering ball of second-rate Denzel (see “Hamburger Hill”).
Scratch one main character when the pompous Walter intentionally crashes and burns after washing out for buzzing the field. A training montage gets the rest of the cast through basic. A highlight is a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt who is taken for a ride by Hannibal. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the dastardly Senator Beach (John Lithgow) is attempting to disband the unit due to the physical inferiority of Negroes. They don’t specify, but I’m pretty sure he is a Southerner. Score one for Eleanor as they are posted to North Africa where they are given P-51s. They are limited to ground support missions, however. If you hate CGI, no worries. We are treated to actual gun camera footage which unfortunately usually does not match the actions of the pilots and is far from seamlessly edited in. Too bad the producers did not have actual radio chatter because what Hollywood puts in their mouths is ridiculous (but not as ridiculous as in “Red Tails”). “Take that you Nazi bastard” is typical.
The first time they encounter German fighters, Cappy (Malcolm Jamal Warner) disobeys orders and goes charging off to his melodramatic death. This incident gives fuel to the fact-searching Sen. Beach when he visits. He recounts all the criticisms of the unit which include poor flight discipline. Later, back in Washington, he has them on the ropes when Col. Benjamin Davis (Andre Braugher) gives an impassioned speech about fairness. That shuts up that son of a Beach (sorry, but you have to admit that’s an accurate description).
The 22nd Bombing Group is getting hammered. “Where the Hell are our escorts!” Lucky for this one incredibly unlucky bomber, the 332nd Fighter Group is posted to Ramitelli and assigned close escort duty. Sure enough, Hannibal and Billy come to the rescue of the very same bomber by shooting down two German fighters. “Give my regards to the Fuhrer”. (Top that, George Lucas! Well played, sir.) Would you believe the Texan bomber commander refuses to credit Niggers for saving his white ass?! Would you believe he later has a change of heart and demands that the 332nd escort them to Berlin? How did you know that - have you seen a movie?
I had forgotten that this movie has the destroyer incident with Hannibal and Billy sinking a German destroyer. In this case, the movie uses gun footage of a Japanese warship. Close enough – it was an Axis ship. Good thing I looked this up and found it to be based on a true event or else I would have accused both movies of the most egregiously ridiculous plagiarism in war movie history.
The final mission. The only bomber apparently in the 22nd Bomber Group is rescued again by the only two fighters in the 332nd. Small sky. Someone who is not Laurence Fishburne does not make it back, but does make it into the montage of the dead guys at the end. If you like to read, you can find out some heroic facts about the Tuskegee Airmen including that they never lost a bomber they escorted (actually, don’t believe that one).
This is a good movie to watch during Black History Month. It’s hard to be harsh with it. It is sooo sincere. It gets the point across and this makes “Red Tails” treading of the same ground (but more piously) hard to stomach. I definitely think George Lucas thought we did not know about this movie. Hell, maybe he did not know about it. How do you explain the dialogue and stereotyping in “Red Tails” being worse than this $8.5 million made for TV movie? Probably because Lucas spent his money on CGI effects so video gamers would go see it.
Its accuracy is commendable. It is similar to “Red Tails” in that respect. Both movies use composite characters, but kudos to TA for having Benjamin Davis in it. (Making RT’s exclusion of him even more perplexing.) TA does a better job on the racist obstacles the pilots had to overcome. Each has a ridiculous villain, but Major Joy is less laughable than “Pretty Boy”.
I suggest you watch TA until they reach Ramitelli and then switch to RT. That way you will get complete coverage of the Tuskegee Airmen. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to avoid the dialogue, clichés , stereotypes, and unrealistic situations.
Acting – Tuskegee Airmen
Action - Red Tails
Accuracy – tie
Plot - TA
Realism - tie
Dialogue - TA
Dogfights - RT
Overall - Red Tails