Friday, March 2, 2012

DUELING MOVIES: “The Tuskegee Airmen vs. Red Tails”

      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


  1. Reading the post doesn't make it clear why Red Tails should be the winner. I'm not going to say much because I have not seen Red Tails. I personally liked the Tuskegee Airmen a lot.

  2. Good point. It's not like my normal "Dueling Movies" because I had recently reviewed "Red Tails" and did not want to repeat what I had said in that review. The idea is for the reader to click on the link to the "Red Tails" review and compare it to this review. As far as the rankings seeming to indicate a win for TA, you can win more categories but still not be the better movie overall. Truth be told, neither movie is very good. Also you have to factor in that after my original review of Red Tails, my research proved it was actually pretty accurate which bumped up my opinion of it. Thanks for the input.

  3. Unless you want to give the impression that your use of the "N" word in your review is your language, rather than the character's, you should put it in quotation marks. Though America's descendants of slaves even today, can't get past being identified by color alone, and a vague reference to Africa, The use today of the "N" word is offensive, demeaning, and insulting, as it was intended, more than it is descriptive and humorous.

    1. How come I hear the "N" word spoken more by black men, than white men then?

  4. the war movie buffAugust 7, 2012 at 5:04 PM

    You make a good point. When I reread my review I realized the lack of quotation marks does stick out. A less than thorough reading could give the wrong impression. I have fixed it, thank you.

  5. Tuskegee Airmen was A CLEAR winner.
    I looked at your comparisons and YOU should
    have drawn the same conclusion.
    Tuskegee Airmen in my opinion beats RT in EVERY
    SINGLE Category except Action sequences.
    But thats because it was George Lucas.
    However TA wins in Plot,Story,Realism,Dialogue,Acting
    Writing,And the TA does a much better job in describing the Racism and challenges the pilots faced.
    And the best part...NO Romantic Nonsense.Tuskegee Airmen showed a much more realistic,serious portrayal.
    Red Tails was more superficial.TA was Substance over Style. Red Tails was exactly the opposite. Scale of 1-10 Tuskegee Airmen gets a 9.5 and Red Tails gets a 4.5
    Its not even close.

    1. 100% agree, TA great film, RT some good action and nothing else ... There is no question about the best film on this one!

    2. I see your points of view, but the fact that you both think TA is a great film makes me more comfortable with my analysis. No offense. Both movies are far from great.

  6. I felt TA did a much better job at telling the story. Red Tails was a great action flick. Neither movie should be classified as great. Had TA had better action, or RT had better story telling, then there could have been a more clear cut winner.

    Personally, I liked TA better...

    1. I don't have a major disagreement with your analysis.

  7. Michael AlexanderJune 8, 2014 at 1:43 AM

    I enjoyed both, I give a much stronger nod to TA that made this African American spirit soar higher than RT. Both flicks may fall short the description of being "great" by film buffs. But after some 50 to 60+ years after historical facts, however one lists shortcomings, whether off or dead on is mission(s) accomplished in capturing my viewing attention 106 to 125 minutes range of each..."we weren't assigned, we were requested". (In protecting the bombers then AND finally the story brought to life for TV and movie screens)

  8. Thanks for the comment. I get where you are coming from.

  9. Webeditors note(bottom of the page): "Please FELL free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond." I like the article, qualified observations, justifiable conclusions. Also, you handle the praise and criticism with a level of professionalism I wish we could find elsewhere on the web.

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  11. I wrote a comment earlier and it needed correcting. Watch Tuskegee airmen in tandem with Memphis Belle. It shows both the Tuskegee (black) perspective and the Bomber (white) perspective. The Bomber they're covering is the Memphis Belle. And the fighter protecting Belle in Memphis Belle is the same Tuskegee men

    1. Excellent suggestion. Another thing the movies have in common is their hokeyness.

  12. Both films are terrible but if i had to choose I would pick TA.I can't believe RT got Lee Archer to endorse it....War Lover is a great WW2 film.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.