Red Tails: Another Tuskegee Experiment Gone Bad

I had had a long day, a very long and tiring day at work.  I felt like Mr. Clark in “Lean On Me” when he decided to go to the parent meeting after his first day at Eastside High.  I didn’t get home until about 10:15 that night after being at work for about 10 hours and I saw that “Red Tails,” the George Lucas movie about the Tuskegee Airmen had a 12:01 showing at the local theaters.  After the hype on Twitter and Facebook with blacks rallying around George Lucas who by all accounts was trying to mainstream an all black cast after not getting major backing from producers and distributors, I figured why the hell not.

At 12:05 the trailers began to roll and I endured the prospect of a “The Three Stooges” movie and the thought of a movie produced based on Steve Harvey’s god-awful concept of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.”  My uneasiness was further compounded as I saw Blair Underwood playing yet another crazy and deranged black man in a T.D. Jakes production that sounded like it was already made for BET called “Woman Thou Art Loosed — on the Seventh Day.”

No seriously, that’s really the name of it.

Finally, Lucas’ name appears on the screen and without much fanfare, rather nondescript credits begin to roll and the movie opens with a fight scene some couple of thousand feet in the air.  The next thing you see is the scene set in Italy 1944.

When I saw that the movie took place in Italy, a growing knot began in my stomach.  I found myself asking why didn’t we start in Alabama and I was saying to myself, this movie is starting off with all kinds of wrong.  Unfortunately, for me, the movie never recovered.  However, to say that it never recovered is to somehow allow that the movie actually was going somewhere in the first place.

George Lucas, now famously, sat at Jon Stewart’s desk on “The Daily Show” and recounted with lucid interest about how Hollywood, the metonymical monster that it can be, refused to back a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen because they didn’t know to market a movie with a mostly black cast.  According to Lucas, this movie has been in the works since the early 1980s.  Be that as it may, Lucas’ comments stirred up enough sentiment in the black social networking community that there were endless tweets and status updates pushing the movie.  To the point that the people were equating the future of black actresses and actors getting top billing with the future of this movie; as if the success of future predominantly casted black movies hinged on the sole success of “Red Tails.”

After watching the movie, in the wee hours of this past Friday morning, I thought I had missed something — because I was so sleepy.  I refrained from making initial comments on my social networking venues because obviously everyone else was waiting until Friday night and Saturday to go see it and I didn’t want to ruin one’s viewing experience with my spoilers.  But after hearing friends’ commentary and talking to a few people, I was therefore liberated to make my social critique.

Primarily, I think why the movie fell flat was very basic: the movie didn’t live up to the hype.  This had nothing to do with a predominantly black cast or Lucas being the director.  Now I could write about how horrible Ne-Yo’s accent was and why was he dippping snuff or chewing tobacco the whole movie or I could ask why was Marcus T. Paulk (the actor who will always be known as Miles from the sitcom “Moesha”) and his “praise black Jesus” meme such a cheeseball character.  Why I think the movie fell bankrupt to some blacks who watched it was because the movie wasn’t socially attractive to how we, Black America, traditionally tell our story.

Let me be clear, I’m not faulting anyone for making this decision; I’m not holding Aaron McGruder who was a script writer or Lucas responsible for this movie possibly taking a massive nose dive.  Traditionally, however, when a story steeped in black culture is told, we tend to start from the beginning of some sorts and bring the story forward.  If you look at many classic stories that heavily focus on blacks (think “The Color Purple” or “Malcolm X” or even “Antwone Fisher” to “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman”) most times these movies show a clear progression from one stage of life to the current one in which the movie is set.  Some movies accomplish this task through flashback sequences.

Tuskegee Airmen - Circa May 1942 to Aug 1943 Location unknown, likely Southern Italy or North Africa

For me, and I’m sure for many others who had a basic working knowledge of the Tuskegee Airmen beyond just being an all black fighting air squadron and beyond the widely circulated idea that they never lost a bomber, this movie lacked the heavily historical context.  Granted Lucas said in his interview with Jon Stewart that given the success of this movie he would be interested in doing a sequel and even a prequel to this movie.  That sounded all well and good, but sequel and prequels only seem to work for works of fiction.  In the universe where people have wars amongst the stars, and in the land of Middle Earth and in nameless countrysides that house cities named Gotham and simply Metropolis, perhaps.  But in real life — just no.

To understand what the Tuskegee Airmen were fighting for, one must understand that blacks weren’t allowed to fly in World War 1 and had returned home to the segregation.  Specifically in the crucible that was Macon County, Alabama in the early 1940s would take one to know about the Tuskegee Experiment when untreated cases of syphillis were left to incubate in the the black male population so that studies could be done to see what were the effects of this STD on humans.  Where some men who were apart of the experiment [it could hardly be called a study] joined the military and were able to get the penicillin shot.  What did it mean for those men in the early 1940s to operate in an atmosphere stifled with such deep-seated hatred and bigotry.

"Keep us flying. Buy War Bonds." Color poster of a Tuskegee Airman (probably Lt. Robert W. Diez) by an unidentified artist. 1943

The fact that Eleanor Roosevelt made a trip to Alabama in 1941 as the First Lady, that Tuskegee Airmen were shown on war bonds posters nor the personhood of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis weren’t at all mentioned somewhat was a disappointment to me.

Perhaps, I had too lofty an expectation of this movie.

Does telling black history preclude it from ever being a part of socially accepted American history?  I think the answer, sadly, is still yes.  My 10th grade U.S. History professor did a very good job of teaching both.  He did such a good job one of my white friends, the son of Polish immigrants (he himself was born in Poland) opined to me freely one day that this was a U.S. history class and why did the teacher always talk about black history.  Lucas, apparently, was trying to put out an action film that happened to be told through the eyes of the Tuskegee Airmen, that’s it and that’s all.

Once I came to that revelation, I realized that I, myself, had brought far too many of my own prejudices to watching the movie.  I realized that the whole time I had been expecting this movie to mainstream a story rooted in black American culture–how foolish of me!  The movie, sad to say, just never captured my imagination enough to ever take off.  By the time I muddled past the failed mechanics of Ne-yo’s wretched accent, the cheeseball character of Deke, the abandoned character development of the new guy Maurice, the underwhelming performance of Terrance Howard (to the point where I was asking where is Denzel Washington when you need him–or Samuel L. Jackson for that matter), and the complete lack of background development of Easy’s character, I was far too fatigued in the mind to try and make a mediocre script and directing make up for the other lack.

Now this movie had four intricate fight scenes, including the opening sequence, that took place in the air–and they were a sight to behold!  Great, I say!  Even epic!  The movie had some great one-liners among my favorite being “…you can live your whole life as an Atlanta compromise if you want…” was my all-time favorite.  However, after all was said and done, this venture, this experiment Lucas decided to endeavor as a result of Hollywood not supporting an all black case was a failure in my book.

I call it an experiment because based on that interview with Jon Stewart, he didn’t sound too sure of what the outcome would be; as though he took some disperate parts, threw them together just to see what would happen.  I hope the participants in the experiement don’t come out worse for wear because of Lucas et. al. misjudging the market.  Hopefully this experiment will teach us that if you want to tell a story, anybody’s story, you just have to actually tell the story.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

9 thoughts on “Red Tails: Another Tuskegee Experiment Gone Bad

  1. WOW!! You just removed all of my enthusiasm (there was only a small amount to begin with cause I just dont do movies) to see this flick. I will still go see it because my mother wants to see it and I will be the one to take her. I literally LOL at the Denzel comment. I mentioned his absence to my mother. I won’t tell her of your review before hand but will certainly refer to it for after movie discussion. THEY can’t tell OUR stories. Never could, never will. It is what it is…. Thanks for the review.

  2. I aggre with most of what you say, but Lucas isn’t thinking about doing a prequel and sequel he’s already done it. So the history of the the Tuskegee experiment prior to these brave young being able to fly should be exhausted in the prequel same as the life they faced post combat will be exhausted in the sequel. As a writer, you are right, we each have our own voice and unique way of telling a story. According to your opinion it doesn’t feel like a story written by black a black author because it wasn’t. I think for this being the middle film in a series of three, leaves me just intrigued enough to see how the entire trilogoy plays out from both a historical and entertainment perspective.

    1. @Tony

      This will be interesting to see how a prequel and sequel turn out. Real talk tho, I’d be willing to let go of some of my disappointment if the subsequent movies turn out well. And for me, it’s not just how one tells a black story, it’s how one just tells a story. That is to say, this is a story worth telling, but it wasn’t worth being told by the teller.

  3. This is well written! My reason for not supporting the film had more to do with the storytelling perspective and Spike Lee’s perspective, which resulted in my disinterest in Lucas’s work. But now, after reading your take, I am further encouraged not to support films of this sort. Not to say that their works are without fault, but I am encouraged to support Black written/produced independent films this year by the likes of Spike Lee (Red Hook Summer), but over course sans anything Tyler Perry.

  4. The dogfights are fun but everything else is filled with corniness, lame acting, predictable story arc, and moments where the film feels like a video-game rather than based on a true story. A great story to be told, but told in a very poor way. Good review right here though. Give mine a look when you get the chance.

  5. Saw the movie Saturday with my spouse. Took me back to the 1950s when young boys drew airplane dogfights instead of daydreaming out-loud and disrupting the grammar school classrooms.

    Think of the comic book heroes that sprang up to fight the Nazis. This was a somewhat campy take on ‘heroizing’ black men.

    On some odd level the movie worked as a typical ‘war & combat’ film in the feel of the setting; those films were quite popular during the ’50s and were ‘boys’ movies. Many of the war films produced during the period Red Tails happened ring true as–life imitating art (as it was) with black protagonists. American Exceptionalism would like to feel ‘proud’ of extraordinary black pilots, not necessarily black soldiers or black men.

    I was quite disappointed with the dream sequences with the Italian signorina and her mother-family, again, not that black soldiers did not end up with available women. Whites always did in the old ‘war’ movies.

    The most unrealistic sequence was the whites’ only officers club. I found it totally unbelievable that a black soldier would re-enter the club to work out racial frustration (Juan Williams being insulted by the Newt at one of the endless GOTP’er debates) without ending up body-broken to the point that not only would he never fly again, had he lived, he’d have been disciplined by white officers.

    The side effect of Red Tails unfortunately made me realize how much I hated the TV series, Hogan’s Heroes because it made war a deadly / funny / dumb German ‘others’ / Exceptional Americans & tokenized Ivan Dixon as worthy of being included.

    And yeah, the character that talked oddly snuff-chucker (character out of Song of the South, Green Pastures, what?) irritated me too.

    Thanks for the review. Uppity onward

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