Analysis, Anthony Hemingway, black cast, Film, film industry, George Lucas, Hollywood, motion picture industry, movie war heroes, Movies, race relations, Red Tails, Reviews, Tuskegee Airmen

Red Tails: A Bad Movie with Good Intentions

“My girlfriend is black, and I’ve learned a lot about racism including the fact that it hasn’t gone away, especially in American business.  But on a social level there’s less prejudice than there was. So I figured, let’s put another hero up there.” – George Lucas

Red Tails, the action drama about Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, opened in theaters nationwide today.  George Lucas’s herculean efforts to get the film made – which included personally financing the project to the tune of $93 million – are well documented.  Over the past few weeks I have received numerous messages via e-mail, Facebook and radio strongly urging support of this film during its opening weekend.  This is supposed to send an unmistakable message to Hollywood power brokers to make more “positive” black films.  Really?  I think not.  Begging through the box office – as proven time and time again – is not an effective way to get more racially balanced, multi-dimensional and realistic images from the film industry.  Also, despite the film’s historical significance and Lucas’s good intentions, Red Tails is not worthy of the cause célèbre status that has been bestowed upon it by many in the African American community. 

“I’m making it for black teenagers.  They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does.” – George Lucas

Of course everyone should know and claim their history, but it is the height of paternalistic arrogance for Lucas to determine what that should be for black teenagers.  Red Tails was historically shallow and predictable in a cartoonish way.  More attention was given to the action scenes than to story and character development.  There was no sense of the black pilots’ familial ties, experiences in America, or expectations and hopes.  Their motivations – beyond patriotism – were unclear. Other possible motivating factors, such as making their communities and loved ones proud and/or expanding career options, were not explored.  One of the pilots carried a photo of black Jesus which was very progressive for the 1940s. Unfortunately, that pilot crashed and was badly burned.  I leave you to interpret that subtext for yourself.

The pervasiveness of racism à la Jim Crow was watered down when dealt with at all.  One such scene took place in the segregated officers’ club.  The Tuskegee Airmen were invited in by the white officers and treated to drinks after a successful mission.  One of the Tuskegee pilots, Smoky (Ne-Yo), chose to share an oft-told, corny joke about color.  The gist of the “comic” story was that whites turn various colors depending on their emotions, yet they call black people colored.  The white and black officers shared a laugh.  Kumbaya! This unrealistic, contrived, feel-good moment glossed over the complexity of racism.  During the Jim Crow era, I find it hard to believe that black officers would enter a segregated officers’ club, even if invited.  They would create their own gathering space to relax and let loose.  If they did take that risk, however, they certainly wouldn’t tell a joke about whites while there.  However, in Lucas’s world, all is well over a beer.  How does this fanciful nostalgia benefit black teenagers?  I have no idea.

“I realize that by accident I’ve now put the black film community at risk [with Red Tails, whose $58 million budget far exceeds typical all-black productions].  I’m saying, if this doesn’t work, there’s a good chance you’ll stay where you are for quite a while. It’ll be harder for you guys to break out of that [lower-budget] mold. But if I can break through with this movie, then hopefully there will be someone else out there saying let’s make a prequel and sequel, and soon you have more Tyler Perrys out there.” – George Lucas

So now the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks sees himself as the savior of black films?  Lucas means well but he just doesn’t get it.  Nor do the others who have rallied around Red Tails as if its fate determines the future of black film production.  Let’s be clear, if Red Tails nosedives at the box office, it will not be because it has a predominantly black cast or lacked publicity.  It will not be because we do not support films with “positive” black images.  Nor will it be due to lack of interest in the courageous Tuskegee Airmen.  It will be for one reason and one reason only – it is a bad film.  Period.   I must confess that it has been fun watching Lucas, who has profited greatly through the Hollywood system, recreate himself as an outsider for the purpose of promoting this film.

“Long-term power is more important than short-term money.” – Warrington Hudlin

Once upon a time, we had independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams who made films specifically for black audiences.   Hollywood noticed their popularity and made their own, more expensive versions of black films.  Black audiences, favoring the splashier productions, abandoned the independent films and have been at Hollywood’s mercy ever since.  Hollywood is not changing, but we can by no longer settling for whatever is tossed our way.  We can actively seek and support independently produced movies that are entertaining and offer a variety of images and stories. 

Brothers and sisters, fret not.  Starting next month, all six of the Star Wars movies will be theatrically re-released in 3-D.  Whatever fate befalls Red Tails, George Lucas is going to be alright.  What about us?  When will we finally accept that it is a waste of time to solicit an industry that misrepresents us over and over again?  Soon, I hope.

17 thoughts on “Red Tails: A Bad Movie with Good Intentions”

  1. I am going to see the movie later today so I can make an educated comment. But one thing that is obvious to me is that “Soul Plane” did not have trouble getting financed and did not spark this much debate.

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  2. I love your brilliant humor and writing. I didn’t hate the film even though it wasn’t perfect. Yes, I felt a sense of obligation to support it because I frequently complain about what’s on the black movie menu and I’m from Montgomery. Tuskegee is right down the interstate. I had to go.

    I don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. However, I wondered why Ne-Yo was cast. As a Southerner, the only place I ever hear Southern accents like that is on tv and in movies. I don’t know anybody in real life who talks that way. You mentioned Jar-Jar Binks. Ne-Yo was Jar-Jar Binks from the Dirty South. I cringed every time he spoke and desperately hoped the Germans would finish him off. I’m surprised the director didn’t help him clarify his performance.

    The packed crowd here in Montgomery was a liberal racial mix and seemed to respond to the film positively. As I said before, I didn’t hate it, but the one word I would use is: emphatic. Everything was too emphatic. The way most of the actors were directed to speak their lines seemed too emphatic. Too many things, from the writing to the acting, were “indicated” as if they had to help the audience understand how important everything was. They were simply working too hard.

    The performances by Oyelowo and Parker save the film.

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    1. Thank you! I appreciate your comments and am in full agreement with you regarding Ne-Yo’s accent. I also have southern roots, by way of Mississippi, and his accent was ridiculously fake. A friend of mine had so much trouble understanding Ne-Yo that he recommended subtitles.

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  3. 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.

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  4. I’m glad you wrote this. I just heard that Red Tails came in second this weekend, making about 20 million. Someone took me to see it on Saturday. It is really a “guys” movie, and your blog is accurate. No character development or any real background explored. The one woman in the movie, who the pilot wants to marry (although they don’t even speak the same language) is Italian. It is truly incredible because I saw a busload of teenagers going to see it near Roosevelt Field on Long Island where I saw it. I wonder what these young black kids think — girls and boys — about the military and its glorification, especially. I guess Lucas had good intentions bringing a big budget all black film to the screen and I understand them. But I agree with your assessment of Hollywood versus independent films, and it is sad that people are not aware of this and so easily manipulated and swayed!

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    1. Wow! A busload?! Like you, I would love to know what themes stood out for those teens. Did they leave with rosy, romanticized views of war and racism? Was this film — perhaps unintentionally — propaganda for military recruitment? Troubling possibilities that underline the importance of critical thinking so as not to be at the mercy of others’ self-serving interests. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. You had me with the first four words of the first quote attributed to George Lucas. I really did not need to read any further to confirm that you nailed the review in the title alone. Great job!

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  6. I went to see the film last week with three “busloads” of preteens with an age range from 10 to 14 years of age. I have to admit that the dialogue was stilted and contrived, but I have to admit as someone who’s only seen one of the Star Wars saga movies this is something I’ve come to expect from George Lucas. The dog fights and special effects were outstanding. I did ask my tween what was the reaction to the movie and it was stated that the dialogue was weird and the special effects cool. Overall I think the entire group enjoyed it. As a movie that was produced by a white person I was not surprised by the watering down of the conflict between the races in America. I also noticed that the reactions of the German soldier wasn’t.

    As for the comments about Neyo’s performance I’ll definitely have to agree with saying he needs to stick to his day job of writing music and singing because he just insulted a lot of our southern roots.

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    1. When I first read about the busloads of “youngins” going to see this film, I was a little alarmed. But the more I think about it, as you demonstrated, this is a wonderful opportunity for intergenerational conversations. Thanks for your comment!

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