George Lucas’ sales tactics for Red Tails, his $93 million production about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the armed forces, make a bigger bang than the film itself.
On the publicity rounds, Lucas has talked about the dearth of movies with African-American heroes, promising that Red Tails will give black teens the kinds of on-screen heroes and patriotic good feeling they’ve been denied. Apparently, Lucas has missed all blaxpoitation, post-blaxploitation and post-hip-hop cinema, not to mention the 1995 TV film The Tuskegee Airmen. Lucas’ ignorance condemns Red Tails to be irredeemably condescending. It’s also one poor piece of filmmaking. Red Tails’ 332nd Fighter Group are a bunch of superficial GI stereotypes, black only in the brown-skinned Obama sense, displaying superficial personal traits. Their captain, Easy (Nate Parker), drinks for courage, and pilot Lightning (David Oyewolo) is a brash daredevil.
Their commanders, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Maj. Emmanuel Stone (Cuba Gooding Jr.) are shallow lifers given to speeches about perseverance. All are cartoon figures; visually, the film also resembles a cartoon: postcard colors that make the squadron’s base at the Ramitelli Airfield in Italy look like it was shot in Southern California (oops!).
Cartoonishness defines Lucas’ approach to Hollywood revisionism; he doesn’t take World War II any more seriously than he took the Galactic Empire, and The Tuskegee Airmen mean no more to him than the Jedi knights.
The pilots, who due to military segregation were denied the right to fly combat missions but were used as escorts and decoys for white fighter pilots, perform selflessly to unspecific codes of conduct, as if they were uninvolved in history (their war chant: “To the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last man, we fight, we fight, we fight!”). This is goofball heroism, though totally without a sense of humor—less, even, than Snoopy’s fantasy dogfights with The Red Baron, which Red Tails frequently evokes.
To read Armond White’s review in full, head to City Arts.
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