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Question: Did Red Tails do what it was supposed to?

By Eddie Brack

[1] In a semester, I've attempted to soar to the truths about the Tuskegee Airmen and their heroics via watching the 2012 George Lucas film Red Tails. The interest in taking on this film project came from a general lack of knowledge of the history of these pilots. From my own educational experience, I've found that historians either lightly gloss over the story of the Red Tails or their history goes unmentioned. Thus, at the onset of the project my knowledge base on the subject was mighty constricted. The first reverberation of this silenced history for me came in the form of this film. With such stunning aerial graphics and gritty dogfights, George Lucas had me captivated. In about two hours, the Tuskegee Airmen became, from my point of view, these larger than life action heroes that saved the war! That's right, the Tuskegee Airmen became Jedi-like! Lucas bestowed a Star Wars quality on the film. But in the beginning of this project, my boyish fascination with the film's aesthetic appeal blurred the realization that this film was a little too like Star Wars. The critics of this film pointed out the film's flashiness, a lack of historical accuracy as far as the characters were concerned, underdeveloped dialogue and characters, and, most of all, a weak plot, with tired clich├ęs. African American audiences, though more generous in their reviews, complained too of a strained real American history in this reel American history. This striking consensus within the reviews caused me to question my own observation of the film. It was clear that more scrutiny was necessary in my analysis of this film, but to be more critical would require an expansion of my historical knowledge of the Tuskegee Airmen.

[2] On my scholarly pursuit, I dove into different texts, documentaries, and even into another film, in attempts to piece together some sort of history -- and I did. I was able to identify some of the most famed and venerated Tuskegee Airmen. I learned of their missions and their accomplishments, of their successes and their shortcomings. From an exploration of their history, I also learned that their battles transcended the grand air battles depicted in Lucas's film. The Tuskegee Airmen fought the adversity of the times, the opinion that men of African descent were incompetent and incapable of flying, and the fear of fighting for a country that wouldn't necessarily fight for them. The more that my knowledge grew, the more I began to feel short-changed by the film. I never thought that my own opinion would become harsh like the opinions of the critics I read at the beginning of the projects -- but it did. I began to see the film's holes. Where are men like Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., in this film? Where is Lee Archer, or Wendell O. Pruitt, and who are all these loosely-based characters loosely based upon? What about Alabama, where Tuskegee actually was located? These questions became the questions that I began to ask. As an African American man, I began to develop a sense of personal connectedness with the stories of the Tuskegee Airmen, and I became sensitive to their portrayal and the way that their stories were told. With historical context under belt, my view of Red Tails became that it exists as a flashy form of grade-school history. The film, I thought, was a great story glossed over with visuals and action scenes that are supplemented by the history, instead of the other way around. What put the icing on the cake was when I watched the 1995 HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen.

[3] After my first viewing of The Tuskegee Airmen, and from a more educated standpoint in relevance to their histories, the same questions posed subsequent to watching Red Tails were nonexistent. The film gave its characters a background at Moton field; it was packed with recognizable historical characters and some of the most important moments in history concerning the Tuskegee project. What was immediately obvious after watching this film was Lucas's lack of originality in the creation of Red Tails. Though the aerial scenes in The Tuskegee Airmen were far less stunning, they were very similar to the aerial scenes in Red Tails, that film's standing point. Some of Lucas's scenes in air and in the pilot seats were almost exact facsimiles of the scenes in the HBO film. With a cast consisting of star power like Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr., the only question I had of the HBO film subsequent to viewing it was in regards to why the film never made it to the silver screen. From my point of view, the HBO film sufficed as an accurate depiction of the brief World War II history of the Tuskegee Airmen. This film deserved full cinematic treatment. But it makes me cognizant of the difficulties that Lucas had in pushing his film into Hollywood studios.

[4] Heavily invested in the success of Red Tails, Lucas spent millions of dollars in its production and promotion. It seems that there is a sense of uneasiness in Hollywood when it comes to picking up African American films. There is something about an African American story from Hollywood's point of view (according to Lucas) that won't appeal to the masses, unless Tyler Perry is somehow involved. As an aside, Perry's most successful films, like Madea, are indubitably funny but slightly reminiscent of the black-face minstrel shows of the old American theatre. Is this the perception that Hollywood maintains and the portrayal that Hollywood still wants to see? Anyhow, international marketability arose as an issue in Lucas's gripes with film studios over his most recent film, but amid all of the problems, Lucas went forward with the production. These same issues may have risen when the HBO television film was being produced almost two decades ago, but many directors lack the financial prowess of Lucas, which allowed him to dictate the attainment of a certain level of exposure and success for Red Tails.

[5] Red Tails lacks some historical context and suffers from a weak plot. A film depicting the same history was created prior to it, and for history sake it was created better, but, still, the importance of Red Tails is undeniable. Lucas gave the story of the Tuskegee Airmen a Star Wars- like quality, but this was necessary packaging. Lucas's presentation of this history was graphically enticing and action-packed, which seems to be what the general public most readily receives in cinema today. With history and historical accuracy not a staple in this film, its ability to grab attention and draw eyes seems to be of the utmost importance. Red Tails serves as a diving board, and we can hope that its creative packaging will cause the masses to spring up and dive into exploration of the history of the heroic men it depicts. Ideally, the Lucas film and the HBO film would be packaged and sold together, allowing Lucas's film to create the appeal in order to expose viewers to a grander view of the Tuskegee Airmen and their history.

[6] One question that arises, however, is whether or not Red Tails was appealing enough? Did people go out to see the movie in January of 2012? What was the intended audience for the film, and did this film reach its intended audience? Red Tails had a production budget of 58 million dollars, though it only managed to collect a total domestic gross of 49.9 Million. This means that Lucas and his crew had greater expectations for the film. According to the reviews and critiques of this film, it seems that black audiences went out to support this film and its cast, as it received endorsements from a multitude of black entertainers, from Tuskegee Airmen retired from service, and even from the president. But I feel that this audience was banked on from the film's start. What wasn't in this film that would've enticed a larger audience? Was the fact that this film was about black history enough to turn some audiences away? The film was largely more successful than other African American war films, grossing significantly more than films like Glory, and The Miracle at St. Anna, but is this the accomplishment that was sought after? Can an African American war film ever reach Pearl Harbor status? The fact that these questions can and have to be raised brings forth the necessity of greater attempts to educate the masses on the Tuskegee Airmen and their importance to the history of our nation!

[7] It comes down to this: with two full feature-length films already created, I do not feel that the telling of this history is done, because in spite of Lucas's valiant attempts, I do not feel that this film reached and awed everyone that it was supposed to reach and awe. And the question arises as to what would need to be placed in a Tuskegee Airmen film that would make people more receptive of their history? That task seems very difficult given the stock Lucas placed in the film. I do not like to think that the reception of this film is influenced by race, but, realistically, we cannot ignore the impact that race has had on the development not only of our nation but of the broader world and community.

[8] Until the attention of the world is garnered by their stories, I feel that movies like Red Tails must continue to be made. As a collective, however, Red Tails and the HBO film leave many facets of the history unaddressed. I'd like to hear and know more about the lives of Red Tail airmen long before they enlisted. I'd like to hear of their stories after the war was over -- stories of adjustment, stories of disillusionment, and struggle, and abandonment -- because I know that these were the stories of the brave men of the 332nd fighter group and the 477th bombardment group after their service. In the HBO film, an airman spoke of his father serving as a buffalo soldier and how his father was hung at home on returning from service in his uniform. I want to hear this man's story! I'm hopeful, like Lucas is hopeful, for a prequel and a sequel to Red Tails that Spike Lee or whomever may make. Lucas said that these ideas would come to fruition based upon the success of Red Tails. Regardless of whether or not the expected success of this movie was achieved, the effort to make a film like this, and any film depicting a relatively silenced history, is valiant. This film has been looked upon by critics, by all different kinds of people, and by students like me, and its importance is illuminated by projects like this, and on websites like Reel American History. I believe the creation of this film just opens the gateway to bigger and broader horizons with more films that can shed light upon this history.

[9] This film, its reception, and all of the controversy surrounding it inclines me to really take a critical look at we, the people. Though viewers and critics both admit that Red Tails was a bad movie for its many weaknesses, were these weaknesses initially what dictated the lack of haste in going out to see and to support this film? Any film depicting war heroes in my opinion should be supported, because it embellishes the sense of the country's collective patriotism. Is that patriotism that we have for our country and in our soldiers discriminate, seeing color in black and white? To what extent have we accepted equality and rejected old sentiments of racism and segregation as a country and as a world? We haven't yet, at least not to the full extent that we as a people can. What remains resonant in my thoughts is a quote from the HBO film by Major Sherman Joy. Addressing the new Tuskegee recruits, he says, "You, people. Don't you know how bad we treat you, people? Serving your country? This ain't your country. Your country is full of apes and gorillas, malaria, missionaries . . . " As a black man, does my country fight for me as it would another, and does my country love me as I love it? Should I ignore the sentiment that is in the above quote, or is it still existent and veiled beneath the stars and stripes of our flag. Does a battle on two fronts still exist for black soldiers? Did Red Tails serve its purpose, but are people still seeing color, and making the conscious effort not to support films like it? Still the questions remain. Sure, Red Tails has its issues, as all films do, but I fervently believe that part of the issue with this film is an issue of race internalized within viewers, which we as a country can't quite shake! As I said before, however, I'm full of hope for the future of this film and what may come out of it.