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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies. Red Tails

RED TAILS (Three Stars)
U. S.; Anthony Hemingway, 2012
There are two ways to look at Red Tails, producer George Lucas’s long-gestating  World War II movie about the storied all-black Air Force unit, The Tuskegee Airmen. You can see the show as a big spectacular action movie, with incredible aerial dogfight scenes, based not too scrupulously, but respectfully, on some interesting and even inspiring historical material.
Or you can see it as a failed war drama mucking around with meaningful and important historical material about racism and American social and military history, which has been Hollywoodized, snazzed up and sugared over, and who cares if it has wonderful fight scenes?
Either way you choose to judge it, and I lean toward the former, you’ll get a mixed reaction — because the action stuff is so good and so brilliantly and excitingly executed, done in Lucas‘s best full-throttle Saturday afternoon manner, and the dramatic stuff sometimes so comparatively clichéd and this-is-where-we-came-in-ish. There’s room for praise in the first instance, and for blame in the second — even though I would insist, Red Tails is easily better than most big action movies of its kind, and exactly the kind of movie I would have expected from Lucas. The audience I saw it with (mixed black and white, mostly ordinary people, some with children) applauded at the end (not wildly, but respectfully.)
Of course, you can also damn Lucas’ business acumen, which is the backstory of Red Tails — a movie he had to finance himself.
The subject of Red Tails is The Tuskegee Airmen, a.k.a. the 332nd fighter group, an all-black Air Force unit, which had to combat both racism in their own world, among their white superior officers and fellow pilots, and the hell of war besides: the deadly forays of the German Luftwaffe fighter planes, including one ubermensch-ish dude they call Prettyboy, in the skies over Italy in 1944. As we watch, two black officers — Terrence Howard as scrappy Colonel A.J. Bullard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the more meditative and pipe-smoking Major Emmanuel Stance — fight to keep up their men’s morale and get them into the thick of the battle, against opposition from hard-ass or gentleman-racist attitudes in Washington and the Pentagon, and despite ridiculous evaluation reports (obviously more speculative than scientific) that insist “Negro soldiers” are not suited for complex fighting duties like flying a plane and going on bombing raids.
Since we know — or most of us know and the rest of us probably suspect — that the Tuskegee Airmen are a famous WW2 outfit with a great war record, we know that report will not stand. But in the beginning the Tuskegee pilots — reduced to bombing munitions trains and shooting it out with occasional lone German planes — are relatively inactive, hungry for the fight. They’re a bit like Henry Fonda’s Lt. Doug Roberts, on the cargo ship in Mr. Roberts, yearning for a war they can’t get near, but also subject to racist abuse and taunts Roberts wouldn’t have suffered.

We like these guys. At least I did. The fliers and ground support of Red Tails, also fictional, are mostly war movie types some with colorful tics or descriptive nicknames, like Declan “Winky“ Hall (Leslie Odom. Jr.), Leon “Neon“ Edwards (Kevin Phillips), Andrew “Smoky“ Salem (Neyo), Antwan “Coffee“ Coleman (Andre Royo) and Samuel “Joker“ George (Elijah Kelley). Among the more notable of the bunch, for personality and screen time, are squadron leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), who likes whiskey; Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wills), who’d rather be “Senior” and whose back row status makes him chamf even more at the bit; and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oylelowo), the charismatic star pilot, daredevil and lover-boy of the group. (Lightning, a great magnetic character, played with lots of swagger and pizzazz by Oylelowo, is the equivalent to someone like Steve McQueen as “Cooler King” Hilts in The Great Escape, the guy we all wanted to be when we were kids and saw that movie.)There’s no suspense about what’s going to happen in Red Tails overall, except over who lives and who dies. (Suspense enough for some, I guess). We know who won the war and we aren’t really worried about the Tuskegee group as a whole. So our pleasure in the movie, if we have any, comes from following characters we like though hazardous situations that we know not all of them will survive.

Howard’s Bullard, who’s no go-along guy, keeps up the pressure to get his men their shot and make nonsense out of that “report.” And finally, the brass relents, and the Airmen get to fly (in special signature planes with red-painted tails), and of course they prove themselves magnificently. Some die, some live, and almost all get their moments in the sun and in the exploding skies, in Lucas-style dogfights that look like William Wellman’s Wings crossed with Star Wars. Those fights, which I found enthralling, are, all by themselves, enough to recommend this movie, especially if you were a kid who loved the better buddy-buddy war movies like  The Great Escape. (If you did, there’s an escape here too, by impatient Junior, from “Stalag 18” — the one after Stalag 17, of course.)

Writers John Ridley (U-Turn) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) don’t try to give these characters, either the officers or the men — or their sometimes supportive, sometimes prejudiced white colleagues (played by Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney and others) — too much depth or nuance. Following what I’m sure are Lucas’ intentions, they try to make them all likable or pungent movie star or character actor types, whom we’ll follow and worry about and root for (or against) through the blazing dogfights — as we did John Wayne as Sgt. Stryker or Lt. “Rusty” Ryan in Sands of Iwo Jima or They Were Expendable, Fonda as Mr. Roberts, Robert Mitchum as Lt. Walker in The Story of G. I. Joe, or John Garfield as the aerial gunner Joe Winocki in Air Force.

Most of those movies have become classics, of course, and the star performances in them have become classics as well — and Lucas and his fellow filmmakers try to put Red Tails in the same groove. Maybe that’s a big part of the problem this movie has for some. They’re judging it not as a regular show, but as a possible classic, as Oscar material (which it is, on its technical side) and therefore judging it a misfire on that high level. But you don‘t have to put Red Tails on that high an echelon to enjoy it — though I agree: It would have been nice if this movie achieved great drama as well as great action. It doesn’t.

Still, Red Tails’ neg squad, who all make some good points, seem to want to see Lucas and company — the writers and director Anthony Hemingway (TV‘s The Wire and CSI:NY), who reportedly had some re-shoot help from Lucas) try harder in those areas, psychology and sociology and history, where Red Tails falls somewhat short — and that most action films tend to skimp on as well (including this week‘s action critics’ darling, Haywire.) They want Lucas to show ambition in other areas than physical spectacle. But,  by telling even a part of the Tuskegee Airmen story, and putting it in a big movie package pitched toward a big audience, with a huge gallery of characters, multiple storylines and dozens of speaking parts, Lucas, and Hemingway and the others, are showing more ambition, trying harder, maybe failing sometimes, but still deserving of that ordinary people’s applause I heard at the screening.

By the way, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, who wrote a mixed review, makes a good point about the hazards of modern political correctness in Red Tails, and in American ’30s-’40s-’50s period movies in general. As McCarthy notes, in a movie that obviously spent a great deal of time and research on physical details, it is ridiculous to mostly banish cigarettes from the Ramitelli Airfield, and turn the 332nd into a virtual smokeless zone, except for Cuba Gooding’s pipe and a few other deviations — especially since, in 1944, cigarettes were part of the soldiers’ standard kits.

I get the idea: This isn’t all that realistic a movie anyway and the moviemakers are trying to be good citizens and avoid putting ideas into the heads of impressionable kids, who might want to run out after the show and smoke like their heroes. So why not ban all guns and bombs and machine guns from the movie? Last I heard, they can kill you too. too.

I know, I know: It’s easier to buy a pack of Marlboros than an Uzi…Well, I don’t smoke. Never have, except when I was playing poker as a golf caddy. And never will. (Humphrey Bogart’s death from lung cancer was enough to scare me off.) But, if you’re worried about showing nicotine sticks and being a bad influence on young people, why not show it the way it was, but also include a sympathetic character who chain-smokes and is obviously headed for a death on the ground, like his buddies’ in the sky? Is that real enough? Anyway, I think the whole question of how we’re driven to emulate characters in movies, is a dubious one — especially as it applies to a movie industry that shows so much torture and mayhem and murder on screen.

I may have wanted to be a Cooler King when I was a kid, but I never tried to hop a motorcycle over a fence with the Nazi army chasing me, like Steve McQueen — though God knows, at one time, I wanted to.

By the way, here’s a salute to the Tuskegee Airmen. They deserve our best — which is probably the whole point of the argument. The money argument too.

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3 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies. Red Tails”

  1. Dia Bocage says:

    This movie was outstanding, I has little knowledge about the Tuskegee Airmen until this great and marvelous movie was viewed. I am so excited about others who have yet to see this educating movie, please take some much needed time to go out and enjoy a story you will not regret seeing. Thank you George Lucus and all of the others that took a leap of faith to see that this information was shared and understood. We need more of this!

  2. M. Love says:

    I am a female who took my 10 year old daughter to see Red Tails. She was into the movie from start to finish, and this was the first time I’ve ever heard an ovation after a movie was over. I am glad I chose to see this film and highly recommend it to others.

  3. JGM says:

    Mr. Wilmington, will we see your Top 10 movies list for 2011?


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon