African-American cinema is a tricky thing. There is enough diversity within the genre to avoid painting it with a broad brush, but there are certain negative things that come to mind when you say something is a “Black” movie. Does this mean there will be buffoonery, and is there something wrong with laughing at ourselves, as long as we’re the ones telling the joke? I think our experiences run the gamut, but unfortunately some of the movies that are most profitable aren’t the most edifying. Movies like Norbit and any one featuring Madea come to mind as examples of movies that I tend to avoid. Every now and then, however – a movie comes along that is worthy of our collective attention. I think Red Tails was such a movie. More than just a “Black” movie, it is an American story.
Red Tails is the story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black aviation unit that served with distinction in World War II; despite initial reluctance to place the soldiers in combat situations. Jim Crow’s insidious reach extended to the armed forces, and Black soldiers were deemed inferior due to the bigoted perception that they lacked the mental aptitude and courage for war. Of course nothing could have been further from the truth, and when the airmen were given their opportunity to serve as bomber escorts, they made the most of their chance. Comprised largely of the 332nd fighter group, the “Tuskegee Airmen” came to be known as Red Tails due to the unique scarlet markings on the tails of their planes. Displaying uncommon bravery, the Red Tails proved to be heroic and victorious in their abilities. Red Tails brings the story of the airmen to a new generation, and it is an important chapter in American history, not just Black history. Produced by George Lucas, the movie reportedly had a difficult time being made because studios doubted the profitability of telling this story. I’m happy that Lucas was willing to personally finance its creation, though I wish the movie reflected more of his deft story-telling ability.
Red Tails boasts a young, talented cast whose camaraderie and chemistry radiated off the screen. Nate Parker (The Great Debaters), Tristan Wilds (The Wire), Terrence Howard (Law & Order: LA), David Oyelowo (The Help), and Cuba Gooding, Jr (The Hit List) were just a few notable cast members. Parker and Oyelowo had the most screen time and gave the most inspired performances as “Easy” and “Lightning,” respectively. Easy is the more level-headed and practical leader, while Lightning plays the flashy showboat. Through it all, they are loyal friends who have each other’s backs in the air and on the ground. I don’t want to nitpick, but this is a review, right? Everything wasn’t perfect, and I had an issue with a couple of the casting decisions. I adore young Tristan Wilds, and I think he’s talented. However, I thought an older actor would have been better suited for his role of “Junior.” He looks like he’s about 19, yet his character is supposed to have a wife and child and is told by another soldier that he is the bravest and best he’s ever met. I guess that is possible, but his character’s backstory seems like it would belong to a more seasoned individual. Similarly, Cuba Gooding’s role as Major Stance was a little derivative. We’ve seen the grisly old pipe-chewing commander before. I could have sworn I’ve seen Gene Hackman or somebody do this already. Gooding seemed to be over-acting a lot of the time, and it got old. Terrence Howard wasn’t as irksome as usual, so thank God for small cinematic favors.
I’ve found that you can never underestimate what the younger generation doesn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there are some folks who saw this movie and learned something new. That alone is reason enough for me to give it my stamp of approval; because this is a story that needed to be told. HBO made a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen years ago, but it needed a grand stage. In this day and age our military more accurately reflects the tapestry of American life, but it is nice to have a reminder of our less than glorious past sometimes to appreciate what we have now. G.I. Joe? No, the Tuskegee Airmen were real American heroes.