The story of the Tuskagee Airmen is one that deserves to be told. While many U.S. states still enforced Jim Crow laws, these African American soldiers were willing to enlist in a military where racial segregation, bigotry and discrimination remained. After being trained to fly and maintain planes in the Tuskagee Experiment, these men proved to be proficient and dedicated servicemen who collectively earned 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their WWII contributions.
Long a proponent of their tale, Executive producer George Lucas spent $58 million of his own money to bring the film to theaters. On the January 11, 2012 edition of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, he also waded into the controversy over what he says is Hollywood’s snubbing of the film because of the predominantly black cast.
In this fictional account, these flyboys are stationed at a separate base camp called the “reservation” by their white peers. Given insignificant busywork, they yearn for action. Facing off with the brass in Washington, commander Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) finally procures them an assignment protecting troops as they make a beach landing.
Once launched, these airmen prove their prowess behind the stick of an aircraft. But on land, many of them deal with personal appetites including women and liquor. Drinking to deal with the stress he feels as squadron leader, Marty ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker) takes one nip too many before an important mission. His bunkmate, Joe ‘Lightening’ Little has trouble with following orders.
In addition to some stunning scenery and engaging aerial dogfights, a visual effect that Lucas perfected in his Star Wars movies, the film gives audiences a sense of the prejudice these men faced. Unfortunately, it is only a sense. Frankly the film feels too clean. The camp is clean. The uniforms are clean. The Italian town the soldiers are stationed near looks like it has been scrubbed down from top to bottom. A POW escapee looks as though he’s been on a first class flight rather than wandering through the woods. And the spectacularly white teeth on these guys would make any dentist proud.
Part of the problem may be the incredible detail captured by digital cameras. But in this instance it becomes a distraction. It is far more likely the actual Tuskagee Airmen lived in far grittier circumstances. Tidying up their story and surroundings only does them a disservice.
While warfare results in bloody injuries, fiery explosions and badly burned airmen, the dialogue is often cumbersome, anachronistic and laden with profanities. (Was ‘man up’ really used in 1944?)
Yet despite its flaws, this is a film that warrants a watching if for no other reason than to honor the men it portrays and their historical significance. Far from being just an African American story, Red Tails is a heroic narrative of a little known group that deserves their moment in the spotlight.