Not a great artistic movie, but it exposes the sordid racial history that is a critical part of our nation’s soul.
As I set out in my original review, I went to see last year’s acclaimed The Help on the first weekend of its release at the Glendale Cinema here in Indianapolis. For reasons that are all too obvious, I wanted to see it in a large crowd that was overwhelmingly African-American. They clearly knew what was going on in this film far more than any white members of the audience, and the film spoke to me with their help.
That same analogy fits perfectly for Director Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails. I saw it with an enormous crowd at the Georgetown Republic Theater on Lafayette Road here in Indianapolis, and I was the only white member of the audience.
Though the film is average at best from an artistic standpoint, it repeatedly touched the audience in a fashion that initially escaped me. To be quite frank, I became equally absorbed with the audience as I was with the film, and my pedestrian reaction to its quality paled in consideration as I watched numerous members of the crowd stand and applaud at its ending.
As most of you know, Red Tails outlines the story of the Tuskegee pilots who were belatedly allowed to participate in World War II. If you know anything about their adventure, you fully understand how it must be seen with the full recognition that the United States fought World War II while openly insisting upon segregating our combat troops.
Against this social backdrop the plot of the film unfolds in a sadly weak fashion. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard play the two commanding officers of the struggling airmen, and they are allowed to bring little to the table.
Mr. Gooding, Jr. has all but disappeared since his Oscar-winning performance in Jerry Maguire (1996). Unfortunately, his character in Red Tails has as little depth as the one he was forced to play in the regrettable financial success Pearl Harbor (2001).
Given more playing time, Terrence Howard is both campy and foolish as Colonel A.J. Bullard, a Tuskegee superior officer who never appears without chomping on his idiotic pipe. Though I shall always admire Mr. Howard for his wonderful performance in Hustle & Flow (2005) and the first Iron Man (2008) ,he accomplishes little here other than to admirably express his anger with his white superiors.
Of the remaining actors, David Oyelowo stands out in his performance as Joe ‘Lightning’ Little. Unfortunately, he is far more self-absorbed than authentic as a pilot who consistently disobeys orders while visiting mayhem on Nazi opponents. Furthermore, in scenes that were as regrettably portrayed as they were obviously necessary, he becomes romantically involved with an attractive young Italian woman, moments that are treated so casually that you can’t help but sense that Director Hemingway did not want to unduly offend his white viewing audience.
On the other hand, it would be foolish beyond words to be any more critical of the film. Despite these weaknesses, there are some golden moments, not the least of which were the planes doing battle, darting in and out of aerial danger. In addition, the scenes where our pilots are facing the humiliation flowing from the blatant racial insults inflicted by white American soldiers, both in the field and chain of command, are as emotionally moving as they are tragically disgusting. These events speak volumes as to why the audience had such a visceral reaction to much of the film.
As I left the theater, it was impossible not to focus on a couple of things. What is generally overlooked is the reality that African-Americans live in a nation, a nation that we readily praise, where their ancestors were brought here as slaves centuries ago. Even when they were freed after the Civil War, blatant discrimination existed across the country in a fashion that was finally fully exposed as a result of the actions of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.
While African-Americans know their own history better than anyone, who can ignore the fact that Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich recently toured South Carolina with the boast that President Obama was the “most successful food stamp President in American history”? They clearly knew what Mr. Gingrich meant by this bigoted characterization, and I couldn’t help but feel that Red Tails played to their collective hearts as well as their troubled souls.
Yes, had I watched this movie with a white audience, I would have likely dismissed it simply as weak and average at best. But given the fact that my ancestors were not brought to this country on a slave ship, is there any wonder that I would have largely missed the point?
To this day I am haunted by the memory from 1969 when I taught the fifth grade at an all African-American public grade school here in Indianapolis. At a moment early in the year three of my young African-American girls came into class one morning crying.
When I asked them what was wrong, one of them yelled, “Mr. Hammerle, I hate all white people!” When I responded, “No you don’t, Ieta”, she again yelled, “Yes, I do!” As they stood there emotionally outraged, I asked them what happened, and they told me about some white men in a car who loudly called all of them by the “N word”. When I again responded that you couldn’t hold this pathetic garbage against all white people, she again responded, “Yes I can.”
At that point, I asked her, “Well, if you hate all white people, what about me?” She stood there stunned beyond words, paused and then started crying again as she hugged me. I still love those girls.
I feel confident that most of the audience for Red Tails had experienced a similar moment in their lives. Keep that in mind if you see it.