By Guest Contributor Kendra James
[Note: The version of the film I saw was a screener in NYC about two weeks ago, and I'm writing this having not seen the final Jan 20th release. If anything has drastically changed (like –I hope-- the horrid opening credits sequence in bold, unevenly placed red text) I invite notes about that via comments!]
- The summary, as provided by IMDB: “A crew of African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program, having faced segregation while kept mostly on the ground during World War II, are called into duty under the guidance of Col. A.J. Bullard,” is fairly accurate.
- There hasn’t been a movie screaming, “GEORGE LUCAS MADE ME!” this loudly since Attack of the Clones. Sometimes, it isn’t a bad thing. (And since Lucas, the film’s executive producer, recently claimed this is as close to Episode VII as we’ll ever get, maybe that’s what he was aiming for.)
- Red Tails features a wonderful young cast of black actors who should be on all our radars. You’ll feel better for having a little Nate Parker in your life– and don’t be ashamed if you have flashbacks to the first time you saw Will Smith in Air Force gear in Independence Day. It’s okay, you’re not alone.
For all the red tape and controversy surrounding its release, Red Tails doesn’t explicitly touch upon race as much as it could. Yes, there are the requisite scenes where older, white members of the army tell Bullard (Terrance Howard) that negro pilots can’t ever be expected to fly proper cover for his white bomber pilots; a scene where one of the Tuskegee crew, Joe “Lightning” (David Oyelowo) Little, gets into a fight with white airmen inside their Whites Only soldiers’ bar; and be sure to listen for any and all references of “Black Jesus.” Race is certainly mentioned, and important part of the film. But given the time period, are there other racial issues they could have given a platform? And should the film be chastised for silencing the experience of all African-Americans of the era – specifically women?
More detailed SPOILERS are under the cut.
There’s a scene where Bullard is giving another one of his airmen, Easy (Parker) a lecture on self-pity and how easy could have it in life, after a mission gone wrong. Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) stands behind him as the lecture continues, and when all three are framed together in the shot you begin to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, the movie is about to touch on not only black/White racism, but the dynamics of colorism within the black community and the advantages/disadvantages of having lighter skin. The shot frames it perfectly. You have two light skinned men lecturing a dark skinned man about the advantages he has and should take in life, yet it’s never mentioned that perhaps Stance and Bullard’s perceptions on life have been shaped by the lighter color of their skin.
The scene isn’t totally contrived – the actual commanding officer of the Tuskegee Airmen, Benjamin O. Davis, was similar in complexion to both Gooding and Howard, who seem to play dual stand-ins for him. But it represents a missed opportunity to touch on colorism, a topic that isn’t addressed enough in a public forum (until a magazine lightens Beyonce’s image, or Brian Stokes Mitchell is cast as -Gasp! – a black man on Glee, that is …). It wouldn’t have been expected for Easy to backtalk his commanding officers, but it would have been nice to see him bring it up later, perhaps with one of the other pilots. It’s not a nuance one might expect Lucas to grasp (does he even know the definition of the word?), but one would think the film’s co-writers, Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and novelist/ media critic John Ridley, might have. Roger Ebert makes another suggestion in his review of the film, noting, “[Red Tails] could have done more than that, by more firmly establishing the atmosphere of the Jim Crow South that surrounded most of the airmen in their childhoods.” Had this background been established, perhaps the door would have been open for a discussion on what it meant to be a light-skinned African-American in 1944.
The movie’s one romantic subplot, an interracial relationship between Lightning and a white Italian, Sofia (Portuguese-American Daniela Ruah), also blows a chance to do something different. It would have been nice to see a young Black actress snag a role in this movie. A large group of men get a great platform here, why not a woman? (Easy scenario: one of the pilots is injured and is nursed back to health by a beautiful woman at an army hospital and they fall in love.) But, fine, the writers have other ideas, and as Lucas said during his Daily Show appearance, he was already having a hard enough time selling this film staring a bunch of Black actors, so he’s hesitant to also include a Black love story as well. So they decide that Lightning will woo Sofia, yet say nothing about the implications or realities (negative or positive) of an interracial relationship in this time. It shouldn’t not be in the film, and similarly shouldn’t be disregarded as a thing that would simply never happen in the time period . However, omitting any mention of it at all seems disingenuous for a film that is about the African-American experience.
Clutch Magazine recently asked if black women should boycott the film because of the lack of a black female love interest, in response to this post from What About Our Daughters? The African-American woman’s experience is often whitewashed and written out television and films. More often than not we’re sidelined to best friends and supportive sidekicks who don’t have backgrounds of our own that aren’t directly connected to the white star’s. Cinematically, we’ve been fairly silenced, and that makes the choice to eliminate the female voice from a movie centering around an African-American struggle to be all the more troubling. Some would say in its defense that this is a “war movie” and not a “chick flick,” and as such it didn’t need another love story (or any love story) in the script. Of course when this is said they’re conveniently forgetting films like Pearl Harbor, war films with predominantly white casts where a romantic subplot is common place and even expected.
The film could have benefited from a tighter script, and perhaps that would have involved cutting any and all romance from the plot. However, that they chose an interracial romance – no matter how poorly examined it is – is no reason to boycott the film. Red Tails is still a movie starring our own. While Howard and Gooding Jr. are already established in Hollywood, they’re still not offered the array of roles that their contemporaries are (let’s consider the widely diverging career paths of Gooding and fellow Jerry Maguire star Tom Cruise, shall we?). And Parker, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelly, Michael B. Jordan, and Marcus T. Paulk aren’t going to be given the same big-screen exposure as the heartthrob white actors their own ages. Personally, I left the theatre wondering when I’ll get to see Parker, Jordan, and Anthony Mackie (of The Adjustment Bureau and Man On A Ledge) all starring in a movie where they just get to be dapper as hell – you know, the same thing actors like Brad Pitt and George Clooney get to do in every other movie they’re in (that’s the point of the Ocean’s Eleven series, right?).
Having once worked in talent management, allow me to speak from professional experience: When you represent a black actor who isn’t a Denzel Washington or a Will Smith, you spend a lot of time scouring casting breakdowns looking for roles in television and film that fit. Normally an age and body type description is given and if a race isn’t specified it reads “Open Ethnicity.” But here’s the thing: a lot of times that means “anything but Black,” which you find out quickly when you call the casting office before submitting your client and ask if the role could go African-American. There’s almost always a pause and hesitation before the assistant on the other end of the line finally says, “… not exactly what we’re looking for, but you can submit anyway.” The reality is that dapper, good looking black folks are not something Hollywood assumes the American public wants, and if we boycott the one mainstream film out this year with an almost entirely black cast we’re doing a disservice and making it harder for any black actor/ress to find starring work.
When it comes down to it, Red Tails is a film with a story that deserved to be told back in1988 when Lucas first had the idea (though time only helped when it came to the superb special effects). It needed some editing, maybe a third or forth pass at the script, and a little polish, but it was an enjoyable film no better or worse than the equivalent white staring action movies that come out during the industry’s dead winter months. The only difference between this and other winter action films like Gina Carano’s Haywire or Denzel’s Safehouse is a predominantly black cast and 20 years of being kicked around Hollywood because no one wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. And that’s the rub, isn’t it?
The film has its problems when it comes to race, and Lucas has put a potentially hurtful spin on its press while doing his best to promote it (talking more about the negatives of how difficult it was to make the film, rather than the things his already loyal fans would want to hear: He’s not making any more Star Wars films and this is the closest thing they’re going to get). It’s also in an interesting place in the general release market, in that it’s a film with an all-black cast that’s not a Tyler Perry film (or the like). It doesn’t get that built in Perry/Black film audience because it’s not your “typical” black movie, but it also doesn’t necessarily get the white male audience that makes up the majority of a war movie box office. Red Tails is something of a novelty in the mainstream box office, but the more of us who go out to support it, the less of a novelty all black casts become. That’s why I say this: Read this review and any others you want, but definitely go out and see the film.