By Armond White
George Lucas’ sales tactics for Red Tails, his $93 million production about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American pilots in the armed forces, make a bigger bang than the film itself.
On the publicity rounds, Lucas talked about the dearth of movies with African American heroes, promising that Red Tails would give black teens the kinds of on-screen heroes and patriotic good-feeling they’d been denied. Apparently, Lucas has missed all Blaxpoitation, post-Blaxploitation, post-Hiphop cinema, not to mention the 1995 TV-film Tuskegee Airmen. Lucas’ ignorance condemns Red Tails to be irredeemably condescending.
It’s also one poor piece of filmmaking. Red Tails’ 332nd Fighter Group are a bunch of superficial GI stereotypes–black only in the brown-skin Obama sense–displaying superficial personal traits. The Captain, Little Joe (Nate Parker), drinks for courage and pilot Easy (David Oyewolo) is a brash daredevil. Their commanders, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Maj. Emmanuel Stone (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) are shallow lifers given to speeches about perseverance. All are cartoon figures and visually the film also resembles a cartoon: postcard colors that make the squadron’s base at the Ramitelli Airfield in Italy look like it was shot in Southern California (Oops!)
Cartoonishness defines Lucas’ approach to Hollywood revisionism; he doesn’t take World War Two any more seriously than he took the Galactic Empire and the Tuskegee Airmen mean no more to him than the Jedi Knights: The pilots, who due to military segregation were denied combat missions but used as escorts and decoys for white fighter pilots, perform selflessly to unspecific codes of conduct–as if they were uninvolved in history. (Their war chant: “To the last plane to the last bullet to the last man, we fight, we fight, we fight!”) This is goofball heroism, though totally without a sense of humor–less, even, than Snoopy’s fantasy dogfights with The Red Baron which Red Tails frequently evokes.
Why comic strip artist Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) participated in co-writing the screenplay is mystifying given the film’s total lack of his usual sarcasm. McGruder, too, must believe in The Force that has infantilized American cinema since Star Wars and so answered Lucas’ call to sign-up. That meant signing-on to the notion that moviegoers wouldn’t respond to a serious depiction of young men who achieved the intellectual requirements of aviation, or comprehend the complexity of young black people who felt duty-bound to fight for the country that denied them basic civil rights. Lucas and McGruder don’t go for realism but the most meretricious fantasy. McGruder viciously trashed Lucas for creating the Jar Jar Binks character in a Star Wars prequel. He’s lucky Red Tails makes no dent in the culture; it would ruin MacGruder’s cool cred.
Lucas’ rep for puerile entertainment stays intact. Star Wars modeled its intergalactic battles after WWII combat movies so Red Tails models its computer-generated WWII dogfights after videogames. The lack of visually credible flying contradicts the significance of real-life heroism. Director Anthony Hemingway–recruited from TV’s overrated The Wire–must only be comfortable with ghetto stereotypes and urban miscreant clichés. His images of principled military men and the 1940s era are unconvincing–plus, the post-synch dialogue has the same laughable impact as a badly dubbed Japanese monster movie. Nothing in Red Tails shows serious artistic commitment.
By promoting Red Tails (named for the Airmen’s customized new P-51 Mustangs) as a correction of Hollywood bigotry, Lucas shows that he knows nothing about how popular culture works. In a New York Times Magazine puff piece, Lucas explained his wish for cultural cross-over: “Which is what you get with sports. Which is what you get with music. I wanted to do it with just being an American citizen.” He ignores how black moviegoers often identified with white movie heroes and enjoyed cinematic patriotism–and not vicariously. When Red Tails’ Airmen fraternize with white officers, they never so much as ask which states they came from. This isn’t American culture; it’s beer commercial bonhomie.
Lucas has spent so long in the manufacture of sci-fi nonsense that he has lost grasp of realistic human behavior. He casts Howard and Gooding for their contemporary currency even though emphasizing their soft voices and pleading demeanors distracts from the ideas of masculine military strength and dignity that Lucas means to convey. Red Tails not only insults the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, it is disconnected from the figures of black male dignity that audiences had embraced when forged by Rex Ingram, Paul Robeson, Juano Hernandez, James Douglas, Canada Lee, Woody Strode Ivan Dixon and others that George Lucas forgets. He’s Jar Jar Binked us again.
By Armond White