RED TAILS (2012)

Running Time:  125 mins.                      Rating: x Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Anthony Hemingway

Genre: Action/Adventure/Drama

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: Fox

Cast: Terrence Howard, Nate Parker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Leslie Odom Jr., Ne-Yo, Kevin Phillips, Method Man, Lee Tergesen, Gerald McRaney, David Oyelowo, Daniela Rush, Bryan Cranston


The really great thing about movies is that they dramatize life. The really crappy thing about movies is that they dramatize life.

On my way to the theater I was talking to myself, trying not to go into nit picking mode. When I was a kid I was heavily into airplanes, especially WW2 war birds. I was even into buying the model kits and then researching both the accuracy of the model and the airplane, sawing away on the plastic and using putty to correct any errors, X-Acto knife at the ready, and painting and decaling to represent one particular airplane. I was far gone. The thing is that in the movies there are inaccuracies from mild anachronisms to radically different aircraft taking off, seen in flight and landing. I knew before going to see RED TAILS what it was about and had seen the tv trailers featuring gleaming P-51s, the glamour plane of WW2 and not the old “jug”, the P-47, beloved of pilots.

One week later I watched a British war movie, REACH FOR THE SKY, that I remembered seeing when it came out. I looked it up on the IMDB, and under “goofs” someone had looked up all of the serial numbers on the tails of the Hurricane aircraft and determined that they belonged on entirely different aircraft from another time and place. I was determined that that person wasn’t going to be me.

As far as the accuracy of the aircraft in RED TAILS goes I was pleasantly surprised to see P-40s doing the missions of the real 332nd Fighter Group. At the beginning of the film they were frustrated being given ground attack missions far behind the front in second rank aircraft in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. This is presented as a representative example of exactly the kind of struggle black soldiers, and black pilots in particular, had to endure in the US Armed Forces in WW2. The back story is first organizing a training school for black pilots and then organizing a group of black pilots, then getting that group sent overseas and then getting into combat. (An all Black bombing group, the 477th, was organized and based in North Africa but never saw combat.)

I’m not too experienced in CGI films. I’ve seen a bunch of them, from CLASH OF THE TITANS to ANONYMOUS, but I’ve never mainlined the hard stuff like TRANSFORMERS, HARRY POTTER ad infinitum. So, I was impressed with the air battles, which were exciting in their use of dynamic comic book angles and compositions.

It’s extraordinarily expensive to shoot real air battles and all sorts of strategies have been used in the past. Process shots where earthbound or parts of earthbound planes are shot against a rear projection screen is one technique. Another is flying models in large scale (used particularly with helicopters). Faked aircraft is another common technique because few people will know or care that a Tiger Moth is pimped to look like a Sopwith Camel, or AT6s are standing in for Mitsubishi Zeros. When they made THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN the producers found over 200 airworthy Messerschmitts because they were still in use by the fascist Spanish Air Force and they found 3 flying Spitfires and no Hurricanes. Not only is it expensive to maintain and fly the planes but also it’s expensive to insure them. All of the great “stunt” pilots died making films. Paul Mantz died while shooting THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965), for example. I’m afraid I’m something of an old man who is amazed at what they can do with computers today. I looked hard for obvious mistakes and I only caught a couple of planes taking off together with identical number sevens on the fuselage, the exact paint scheme of the well documented P-51 of Lt. Roscoe Brown Jr. who is given a special recognition in the film credits.

RED TAILS is built around some very noticeable prototypical characters. Some are specific to war movies, others merely in general. There is the considered, thoughtful guy and his opposite number, the wild man. The wild man gets away with it all through the picture except for the last time. Usually after he has reformed or it looks like he is going to reform. It’s the serious guy and the Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky. Lucas said he based the two characters on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but we’ve seen these guys so many times that the thought never entered my head.

In early Scorsese movies first Harvey Keitel was the wild and crazy guy then he was the serious guy and Robert DeNiro became the wild and crazy guy. Then, in middle Scorsese, De Niro was the serious guy and Joe Pesci was wild and crazy. I swear, by CASINO I was expecting their scenes together to be introduced by a girl in a bustier announcing, “Now George and Gracie will do one of their vaudeville routines.” No one mentioned the even more clichéd but little noticed role of the crew chief that was always harping on the pilots for getting “his” planes shot up and damaged. That is standard issue for every war birds movie. And he’s always angriest with the wild and crazy guy for taking the most chances and brings back his plane with the most damage. And you know he’d be the most emotional if he didn’t come back from a sortie. Its just standard operating procedure.

In RED TAILS, the steady guy, Martin ‘Easy’ Julian is played by Nate Parker and the wild guy, Joe ‘Lightning’ Little, by David Oyelowo. The name Julian recalls that of Col. Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, the self-styled Black Eagle of Harlem. Julian was associated with Marcus Garvey and once attempted to fly non-stop from New York to Liberia but the beat up seaplane he used began to fall apart when he lifted off from the Hudson River and crash landed in Flushing Bay. He did hold the record for flying non-stop without refueling, and was the first black man to fly coast to coast. He was a friend of Haile Selassie who made him a colonel, hence his titular rank, before kicking him out of Ethiopia for crashing his favorite airplane. He passed through Tuskegee but predictably washed out.

His opposite number was John C. Robinson, the Brown Condor of Ethiopia, who also flew for Haile Selassie. During the Italian Invasion in 1935 they were both in Ethiopia (but only Robinson was allowed to fly) when they had a fistfight in a hotel corridor and again Julian was asked to leave. Robinson, who had been trained in mechanics at Tuskegee and at the Curtiss Wright Aeronautical Institute, (where he also taught), and had previously turned down setting up a civilian flight instruction program, was the actual driving force in setting up the Air Corps program.

Unlike in the cinema, Julian went on to a dozen adventures eventually becoming an accused arms dealer among other things before dying at the age of 86 in a house in The Bronx near where I grew up. On the other hand Robinson died flying in Ethiopia in the early 50s and doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. A movie only has the time and space to provide one, maybe two didactic examples and for the rest of the time must rely on the ethical and moral baggage that the audience brings with them. Slow, steady and careful wins the race; reckless abandon is soon paid with ashes and grief. Unfortunately life does not conform to the didactic necessities of cinema.  The shape of real life fate is not as conveniently malleable as it is in the movies.

Usually the only way to avoid cliché characters in war movies is to give them no personalities as in Terrence Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE, or never to show the action as in Robert Montgomery’s THE GALLANT HOURS.

Since a film is a dramatization of real life and not real life itself (except in certain experimental films), there must be some interaction between personalities that suggests that there must be different personalities to interact. Hence in war films there is the steady guy for whom leadership is a heavy burden, the hot-shot who breaks all the rules, The Kid, etc. A lot of critics mentioned the “bomber crew” technique to emphasize the cliché aspect of expected film characterizations but there was a real and very important reason for the establishment of the bomber crew in wartime narratives.

The idea was to bring together the disparate types from what were called different walks of life, farm boy, Brooklyn street guy, Bronx wise guy, country club type, Southerner, etc. and by all working together they can achieve a common goal. In this case, victory. There was always one character that needed an attitude adjustment that was effectively achieved by the end of the film. It was the old “E Pluribus Unum” thing. Of course there was always one glaring omission. There were never any black faces in the bomber crews. This was because the Armed Services of the United States of America were segregated in WW2.

There was a thin trickle of films after the war that dealt with the racism of the Armed Services such as HOME OF THE BRAVE and RED BALL EXPRESS, but it was never a widely discussed topic until the joining up of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement in the late ‘60s elicited a reexamination. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been a popular one because it brings together so many of the elements concerning institutionalized racism in the US Armed Services and ultimately how it was overcome.

Since RED TAILS is a big film made in the popular CGI/adventure genre, a mainstream film made to play in the multiplexes and not art houses, premium cable or public broadcasting, it has attracted an enormous amount of racist reaction, giving credence to producer George Lucas’ complaint that because of its topic no studio would finance the project in the first place. The mildest racism involves some sort of critical “shock” at the conventional conceits of popular filmmaking, such as the aforementioned typage in character representation. It’s the broken taillight of film criticism.

The bridge too far was in the criticism of the C.O., here called Colonel A. J. Bullard. In fact it is a portrait to the life of Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. He was the fourth Black man to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. He had no roommate, no one spoke to him outside of official communications and he ate alone for all four years, indicative of the institutional racism of the Armed Services. Think of the photograph of the all white US Marines sniper team with their Lightning SS flag in Afghanistan. Think of the Asian soldier hounded to death, also in Afghanistan, with the willing assistance of his officers. Davis was also the first to graduate from the Tuskegee and the first black man to solo in an Army Air Corps airplane. Famously the caption under his picture in the West Point yearbook read:

“The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.”

I think that Terrence Howard captured exactly this spirit to the letter. He wasn’t a rehashed cliché, but the real thing. Yet for some the performance wasn’t authentic. As if they knew something about it or were just digging in their heels and thinking that this would be “reasonable” negative criticism.

Of course much of film criticism is prejudicially driven. One minute they object to the use of a standard typage, the next moment they don’t even blink at another time bomb with a digital read-out counting down. They hate the cliché but admire a warmed over sauce on stale bread. They praise the same old same old and despise innovation unless it’s the other way around. It depends, on their prejudices. Suffice it to say that the name “Jar Jar Binks” came up in more than a few reviews. One could almost guess the age of the reviewer from that mention. The reviewer was a teen or pre-teen when they first saw STAR WARS, lets say 10 in 1976. So that in 1999 when the prequel trilogy began to be released they were in their 30s and they just weren’t carried away as they had been as children, never for a moment thinking that they were just children’s movies in the first place and that it was them, not the films, that had changed. And that’s all been coded down, in their disappointment and hostility, to simply “Jar Jar Binks”. As RED TAILS was a long time George Lucas project, the enmity has spilled over to their bitter 40s with RED TAILS.

If critics are able to allow obscure gripes to influence their reviews, imagine how it affects the judgment of racial bigots.  Though they’ve been taken down, the IMDB message board had several threads whose messages started either “I’m no racist but…” or “I don’t care if you think it’s racist but…” The only difference between the messages is that the former were indeed startlingly racist and the later stomach churningly racist. The first and most offensive message started out claiming that RED TAILS was part of the same effort that included Obama selling out the country to the Muslims, surrendering to a nuclear armed Iran, etc. None of the messages were from people who had actually seen the film. They all were quite insistent that they had no interest in seeing a movie about black pilots in WW2.

It’s amazing but maybe the distributors were right. America is too racist to see a film with a black cast. And it’s somewhat ironic that George Lucas should produce a film, at great expense, whose primary motive wasn’t to make money. Some very strange things have happened since the election of Obama. Some very ugly things, racist things, are being revealed about this country. Things that have lain dormant for many years, like anthrax spoors. From the late Sixties through the Seventies and the Eighties and the Nineties, the success of the Civil Rights movement, always called “political correctness” by the reactionaries, had suppressed the open practice of racial bigotry. Oh there was open chaffing at the concept of Political Correctness.

Occasionally a radio personality with pretensions of believing their own publicity would get above their limited specialty in communications and say something really terrible mostly because they had actually stopped listening to themselves years ago (e. g. nappy-headed hos, etc.). The out-there racists, the Nazis, Christian Identity etc. existed on the fringes of society. But, there was a hard core of racists who remained silent for decades. There were some stirrings under George W’s regime but they erupted out of the earth after Obama’s election. This is how the “N” word erupted into signage during the Tea Party fad. All of that birther bullshit was circulating before the election but it never truly became an issue because the people who would use it didn’t believe that America could or would elect a black man president. They thought a majority of Americans were like them — racists who had kept silent for fear of being singled out by the Political Correctness Police (you see they believe much of their own propaganda). The shock led to the desperate measures of suddenly realizing that the black President was somehow born in Kenya, and, by the way, was a Muslim. Moreover he was the vanguard of an alien invasion of anti-Christian socialists. Anything goes. There was a desperate attempt at precipitating a “do over” whose possibility of success existed only in their minds.

The racially motivated nit picking is all directed at demythologizing the achievements of the Tuskegee Airman. They didn’t actually go directly from the P-40 to the P-51D but through several intermediate planes. I could write three or four paragraphs on the selection, meaning and ramifications of all the intermediate types of planes they flew, but it would probably be an irksome digression to all but a few aviation otaku, and they already know what’s what. Just as the film could take a half hour exposition explaining it all to no good effect.

They didn’t have a perfect record i.e. never lost a bomber. Other escort units had just as good a record. They had, uniquely, their own PR group in the Pentagon pumping out favorable publicity.

This was mentioned in some criticism because the bigots natural assumption was that, I can hear the dulcet tones now accusing some racial expletive/ethnic slur/communist congressman from New York of putting pressure on Roosevelt to enlist, train and deploy black aviators as a way of forcing integration down the throat of the US Armed Services and eventually the United States as a whole.

Actually the motivation for the Tuskegee project was from the top down. The US was fighting a total war. No trick could be left undone. Sometimes the detail work and planning seemed almost comical. There was one committee studying ways aluminum could be used to replace wood, and another how wood could replace aluminum. A total effort was needed. I have a little specialty in wartime propaganda films focusing on films about what was called The Home Front. Basically they encouraged women to join the war effort. There were all sorts of scrap drives collecting rubber tires to pots and pans (but strangely enough the only significant collection was of household fats which were vital in making explosives.)

The Black Community was also considered vital for the war effort and there was an underground sentiment of sitting out this “white man’s war”. The government hired Fats Waller to write a song encouraging black people to collect scrap but the song, Cash For Your Trash, had a different meaning on the streets of Harlem and the song was suppressed. The exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen were publicized to make the Black Community feel that they were part of the war too.

Not having seen the film the bigots only criticize it for racial rather than artistic reasons and have nothing to say about the purely goofy movie stuff, which is the usual dollop of sentimentality that people demand from their movies or rather that the people who run the film business think people demand. They may make slasher/zombie/vampire/murder movies but they make slasher/zombie/vampire/murder movies with heart.

The “Kid” character hurts his eye in a dogfight and should be kept off the flight line but Easy Julian passes him against his better judgment and completely opposed to actual strict operating procedure (it puts everybody in the flight in danger). But it’s done because The Kid will be shot down, sent to a prison camp, (there is a nice bit where the escape committee welcomes him with open arms because he COULDN’T be a spy), and escapes, but word filters back that he was killed yet he shows up at the end of the picture for a happy and warm hearted reunion. I just think escaping from a prison camp in the dead of winter with snow on the ground is ludicrous since footsteps in the snow are so easy to follow.

More phony movie magic is to have a villainous enemy pilot to personify every enemy pilot. Nicknamed “Pretty Boy” he is shot down over his base, crash lands his plane and looks up to see his opponents are black. He shakes his fist at them and is astonished that they are black and calls them “Africans”, which has also been criticized. Of course the proper German word would have been “negger” which sounds exactly like the English “N” word so that was out. The more informal “schvartze”, which was the pejorative descriptive of my father’s generation, (my mother was from the South and used “colored”) sounds ugly to my generation and is probably totally unknown to succeeding generations so that was out too. “African” is unrealistic but it would have to do with the situation and the actors’ intonation having to bear the burden. (They were actually called “Schwarze Vogelmenschen” or black birdmen by the Germans.)

There is actually a scene where this is discussed and it form the core of the film in term of what is this all about. There is an early scene where Lightning (a nickname which wouldn’t have been used if the screenwriters were my age or older) enters the all white officers club where he is summarily asked to leave and called the “N” word that precipitates a fight. Later in the film the black pilots are confronted in the streets by a bunch of white pilots who insist on bringing the black pilots into the officers club and buying them drinks. This is what the film is about. Acceptance as equals. They had proved themselves. They had overcome.

While in the OC the white pilots want to know why they object to being called colored, and after an amusing explanation they are asked what they prefer to be called. “Negro” is the answer. Its kind of ironic as one rarely hears the term “colored” anymore except nostalgically and “negro” not at all. But the “N” word is alive and in use by both the hip-hop community and the reactionary bigot community.

If there is anything inauthentic about RED TAILS it’s the people; how they talked and how they related to each other. Middle class black people of the era were more like middle class white people of the era than they were like middle class black people of today. They were far more formal and uptight. If a guy saw another guy maybe drinking too much he kept his mouth shut and didn’t interfere. They weren’t what we call touchy feely. They didn’t intrude and people were not forthcoming or emotionally open. People were more individualistic and self reliant, or at least they tried to be. There were certain things one didn’t talk about and that was most things. But it’s a world that only someone in their 80s or 90s would know. It’s standard operating procedure for period films to reflect contemporary social attitudes and hairstyles. Authentic language and interrelationships would be lost on all but a very few. And it wasn’t, as with the intermediary aircraft types, germane to the story, no pun intended. After all, a film is reality distilled into a story and then dramatized. Its not reality. It’s a movie.

Basically if you want to see a good WW2 aviation film done in a real old-fashioned movie style but using all of the modern EFX tricks, then I recommend, no urge you, to check out RED TAILS. And, forget all of the racist quibbling.

For some historical background see:


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