Sunday, January 22, 2012

Black and White and Red: A Tale of Combat Togetherness

Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Red Tails

The homophobia, racism, misogyny and pure backwardness among Republican candidates hoping to relocate to the White House is beyond shocking. Even crazier than Rick Santorum’s desire to ban all forms of contraception is the pledge by Newt Gingrich, who calls Barack Obama a “food stamp president,” to make poor black children clean bathrooms in their schools. He alleges they have no work ethic, so his solution involves abolishing child labor laws and paying slave wages (about 60 cents an hour!) to kids as young as nine for janitorial duty.

In Red Tails, a passion project for more than 20 years from executive producer George Lucas, some presumably poor black kids in the mid-20th century skip toilet patrol but grow up to become brave ace pilots during World War II. The film is a fictionalized account of the real-life 332nd Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen, who trained at a similarly named school in Alabama and served in the segregated U.S. Army Air Corps. Almost seven decades later, the genius behind the Star Wars franchise had to finance the new movie himself at least $58 million because Hollywood studios feared a predominantly African-American cast would limit box-office success.

In tribute to the courage of Lucas and especially of the true Tuskegee heroes, I wish I could report that Red Tails is a masterpiece. But the script by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) relies on wooden, cliched dialogue and characters, all seemingly straight out of 1940s B-movies about combat: There’s the wise-cracking chief mechanic (Andre Royo) with his cap turned sideways; a religious fellow (Marcus T. Paulk) who carries a card for good luck that depicts a black Jesus; the 332nd’s never-less-than-wise Major Colonel Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) always puffing on a big Meerschaum pipe like General Douglas MacArthur; and the insidious German Luftwaffe commander who instructs his forces to “Show no mercy!” What? Were these Nazis liable to show mercy if not told otherwise?

David Oyelowo as Joe “Lightning” Little
All the actors, in fact, are relegated to tired retro types with nicknames: Nate Parker plays Captain Marty “Easy” Julian, who drinks too much; David Oyelowo appears as Joe “Lightning” Little, a rambunctious pilot regularly grandstanding against orders; Tristan Wilds is Ray “Junior” Gannon, an eager flyboy pleading to stay even when his eyesight is impaired after being wounded in a mission (“I’d rather be dead than on the ground!”). The stiffest performance comes from Terrence Howard, as Colonel A.J. Bullard, whose military posture is undeterred by the unabashed bigotry of his white superiors. Two of those superior officers are small roles unmemorably inhabited by Bryan Cranston and Gerald McRaney.

The dogfight scenes that ought to make up for a lackluster story look like video games with a Star Wars panache. A feature directorial debut for Antony Hemingway, Red Tails has a title that refers to the hue these servicemen painted parts of their planes. At first, they are given old, barely functional aircraft from “Uncle Sam’s junk heap,” as someone in the film says, and not really allowed to fully participate in the war. Their main responsibility is to protect the bombers flown by whites. By going rogue, Lightning periodically manages to destroy Nazi armament trains and battleships, but he’s reprimanded. At an all-Negro base in Italy, they gripe about their second-class status. Back home, newspapers run stories insinuating that “the Tuskegee experiment” has failed because blacks aren’t up to the task. “You’re colored men in a white man’s army,” Stance proclaims at one point as if they and we don’t already know that. This is the beginning of a predictable, requisite pep talk.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Bullard convinces the brass to supply up-to-date P-51 Mustangs with which to counter the German Messerschmitts. “We have a right to fight for our country, the same as any other men,” he contends. Maybe, but they sure don’t have a right to buy drinks in the local officer’s club, which Lightning boldly enters and where a Caucasian soldier shouts at him: “Go home, nigger!” The lad would probably not be safe going home if the lovely Italian girl he’s been romancing, Sofia (Daniela Ruah), agrees to his proposal. At that time, mixed marriages are outlawed in many states with Jim Crow laws.

The film’s most interesting development is the tension between Bullard, who believes that slow and steady wins the racial race, and Lightning, a sort of hotblooded militant. Unfortunately, Hemingway and company do not explore this idea in any depth. The classic Martin Luther King-Malcolm X divide remains unexamined. Once Hitler is defeated, it will be another decade before the civil rights movement starts up and the military won’t be desegregated until 1948, thanks to Harry Truman. If Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or any of the other current bigots had been president then, blacks might still be in symbolic chains. And forced to spend their childhoods mopping school toilets.

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment