Sunday, January 29, 2012

Red Tails (and a bit of Contraband and Haywire)

Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. and other Tuskegee Airmen
receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007

                  Fight or Flight:  Sometimes You Have To Do One
                  Before You’re Able To Do the Other
                  Review by Ken Burke           Red Tails
Aspects of history often remain hidden until given an opportunity to be recognized, as with this inspiring but overly melodramatic tale of the Tuskegee Airmen in WW II.
            You say you want an action flick to keep your testosterone bubbling during these NFL pre-Super Bowl no-game or lame-game days?  (Pro Bowl?  Please!  Does that even rate the energy to make guacamole?  I think not.  I prefer the WWE Royal Rumble which is like the GOP debates in being loud and absurd but at least it’s all over in 3 hours instead of God knows how many more months.)  If that's what you need, there are a good many flying fist/rampaging transport vehicle movies to choose from at the local cinemas (including David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as long as you don’t object to the best beat downs being done by the waif-y “girl” [grrl would be more like it, and if you do object then you better steer clear of Lisbeth Salander]), but if you haven’t seen Marc Wahlberg do damage to some obnoxious characters in his new thriller (with Giovanni Ribisi as his major problem) then you might want to look into Baltasar Komákur‘s Contraband (a reasonable title given the plot but it also conjures up for me memories of some opening act for the Conqueroo or Shiva’s Head Band at the Austin, Texas Vulcan Gas Company in 1968).  This one is a standard stewpot of swagger, threats, loved ones in danger (especially suffering wife Kate Beckinsale), car chases and crashes, fireballs, drugs, bullets, last-minute rescues, revenge, and happy retirement through illegal means—not to mention a blue-collar joke at the expense (a $20 million black market expense to be exact) of Jackson Pollock’s drippy artwork.

            Or maybe you’d prefer something a bit more complex (at least as far as trying to make sense of the various plot entanglements) such as Steven Soderberg’s Haywire where a clandestine operation that apparently aids the U.S. government in certain unpublicized “political” acts turns against one of its own, leaving tough-as-nails mixed-martial-arts champion Gina Carano (Mallory Kane) to her own devices as she’s double-crossed by an assortment of A-list stars: Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas, all of whom eventually get what’s coming to them, and not in a PG manner (equally blue chip Michael Douglas is also in the mix, but he at least seems to be on Mallory’s side in all of the duplicity and homicide).  It’s not always clear what’s going on or why in this story of many global locations and even more brutal combat scenes (where a lot of punches and smashed furniture surprisingly yield little blood or broken bones), but if you want to see a real kick-ass woman holding her own in a gauntlet of attacks (sorry Chloë Grace Moretz, Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass [Matthew Vaughn, 2010], but Carano may be the most ruthless woman on screen since Uma Thurman’s vengeful The Bride character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films [2003, 2004]) then Haywire might stroke your savage beast (so to speak) until the Super Bowl’s opening kickoff.

            However, if you'd like to see some historically-based action, a war film to be exact, with an important message of social justice behind it, you might put your money on Red Tails (directed by Anthony Hemingway, a guy with brief film experience but lots of TV credits, hired by Executive Producer George Lucas because of his work on the critically-acclaimed series The Wire), which in my case takes me from Haywire to Hayward (California, that is), partly because I saw both films in the same local theatre and partly because of a special treat next door to that theatre that I’ll say a bit more about below.  What I wish I could say more about in a praiseworthy fashion is Red Tails because it’s an inspirational account of the Tuskegee Airmen, the many brave African-American men who stood up to racism at home and in the military as well as to Nazism in Europe in World War II, but what would ideally be much more compelling as a narrative just comes across as too melodramatic and overly sanitized, except for the aerial combat scenes which are as tense and active as the entire film aspires to be.  I can’t fault the actors—the more well-known ones such as Terrence Howard (Colonel A.J. Bullard) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Major Emanuelle Stance) along with the fresh faces who carry much more of the screen time—because they’re making a consistent effort to bring passion, determination, and respect to their historically-inspired characters, but the script is just flat and at times a little silly.  That’s surprising, given that the screenwriters are John Ridley (who’s penned a lot for The Wanda Sykes Show and Barbershop TV series, among many others) and Aaron McGruder (well known for writing the uncompromising social critique comic strip and TV series, The Boondocks), but as my pop-culturally-well-versed wife pointed out, sometimes the dialogue sounds like something from the 1950s Superman TV series, broadcast in the late afternoons to appeal to its kiddie audience (along the lines of “Well, Lois, sometimes we’ve just got to all work together to solve these problems”). 

         I realize that this film is set in 1944 and maybe verbal exchanges then really were as tactful and simplistic as some of the talk in this film, but I can’t help but think that some of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen who met with the actors while Red Tails was in progress would find the presentation of their comrades a bit hokey at times, even though they’d still be proud that their story is being told for a wide audience who have gone far too long without knowing much about the aerial exploits of these men whose presence in our nation’s history is slowly getting the place of honor that it deserves (although it did come to light in 1995 in the made-for-HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen [Robert Markowitz]—a take on this story which got considerably better reviews than Red Tails—with big name stars such as Laurence Fishburne, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Courtney B. Vance, Andre Braugher … and Cuba Gooding Jr. [while Terrence Howard previously played a Tuskegee Airman pilot being falsely court-martialed in Gregory Hoblit’s 2002 Hart’s War]), just as the real Airmen finally got the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 (the highest civilian honor in the U.S., which, ironically is often awarded to those who have fought in our wars), as shown in the first photo above which emphasizes Captain Brown (after the war a professor at New York University and President of Bronx Community College, now the director of the Center for Urban Educational Policy at the City University of New York) who is the one actually responsible for first shooting down one of the more powerful German Me-262 jet fighter planes and for attacking a German destroyer, both events depicted in the film (for which he was a consultant) but attributed, along with the actions of other Airmen pilots, to the fictional Joe "Lightning" Little (my thanks to Ben Henderson of the [San Francisco] Easy Bay Aviators Incorporated for this clarification).

          As with the Brown to Little transformation, while there are now increasingly more sources of information on the collective history of the Tuskegee Airmen you’d be frustrated in trying to research the individuals featured in Red Tails (although you can find an earlier version of Cuba Gooding’s character’s name with Sergeant Emanuel Stance, a member of another famous black military unit, the Buffalo Soldiers cavalry of the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, who got the Medal of Honor, our highest military commendation, in 1870) because they’re all fictionalized composites of the actual Airmen:  the real commander of the 332nd Fighter Group was Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., not Howard’s Col. Bullard, and his second in command, from the earlier 99th Fighter Squadron that was brought into the 332nd was Major George Roberts, not Gooding’s Major Stance, while the other pilots depicted in the film resemble actual Tuskegee Airmen but don’t exist beyond the silver screen, odd in that Red Tails is supposedly based on John Holway’s book Red Tails: An Oral History of the Tuskegee Airmen which is just now becoming available in conjunction with the current release of the film. 

          (Reader Warning! Detour to Long but Relevant Digression!  Road May Be Hazardous!  Proceed at Your Own Risk!  And be careful not to use up your monthly allocation of exclamation points!  You wouldn’t get any of the information about the fictionalization of the Lucas/Hemingway production from the publicity about Red Tails that I’ve seen nor in its official website that I could find but if you download Dr. Daniel Haulman’s new ebook What Hollywood Got Right and Wrong about the Tuskegee Airmen in the Great New Movie, Red Tails—available through Google Books, Amazon’s Kindle, and other sources—you’ll find the needed clarification.  Haulman also co-authored one of the several books on the fighter group, his 2011The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History: 1939-1949.  The fact-to-fictionalization isn’t unusual, though, in cinematic histories of these soldiers because the 1995 film also used constructed composite characters except for Col. Davis played by Braugher, as noted in more detail at

          (In the ebook Haulman recommends that anyone who wants to watch a more historically accurate version of the Airmen should see the Double Victory documentary also produced by Lucas, not available for sale yet but has been shown around the country at some special venues and is due to be broadcast on the History Channel in their History Classroom series next month, Feb. 6 and 13.  You can get a taste of it at

            (However, bringing up Haulman also brings us to the claims that he’s what some critics of the Airmen’s exploits call a Tuskegee Denier because of his study called “Nine Myths about the Tuskegee Airmen," found at the following website:  Based on what I’ve read in a few Internet screeds, those who are more interested in denigrating the accomplishments of these African-American military crusaders than in honoring them—especially pouncing on the false claim made by some that no bombers were ever lost if under escort from the 332nd— often cite Haulman as their verification that the Airmen’s accomplishments are overrated.  But, if you actually read Haulman’s “expose” you find his more positive conclusion: 

          (“Whoever dispenses with the myths that have come to circulate around the Tuskegee Airmen in the many decades since World War II emerges with a greater appreciation for what they actually accomplished. If they did not demonstrate that they were far superior to the members of the six non-black fighter escort groups of the Fifteenth Air Force with which they served, they certainly demonstrated that they were not inferior to them, either. Moreover, they began at a line farther back, overcoming many more obstacles on the way to combat. The Tuskegee Airmen proved that they were equal to the other fighter pilots with whom they served heroically during World War II. Their exemplary performance opened the door for the racial integration of the military services, beginning with the Air Force, and contributed ultimately to the end of racial segregation in the United States.” 

          (For whatever reasons that serve their own purposes those who attempt to debunk the Tuskegee Airmen generate their own myths about Haulman’s research and respect for the men of the 332nd, but if you’re tempted by their citations I encourage you to read his actual statements, as I have in doing in what’s amounted to an enormous amount of unanticipated research on the background of Red Tails, fueled originally by the simple curiosity of noticing the odd fact that the character list of the Lucas film doesn’t overlap at all with the characters of the 1995 film—which I admit I haven’t seen.  That led to a lot of inquiries into both films and their historical inspirations which yielded the various Web sites I’ve cited, and countless others found in the many hours of my various searches, but one question still unanswered is why the Red Tails scriptwriters so completely changed all of the characters’ names and presumably fabricated certain aspects of what we’re shown.  My only guess is that, to create the compressed story that had to be told in standard movie running time and still tuck in the various actualities and folklore desired to be shown, characters had to be constructed that could be connected to those attributes without risking backlash from unsupportive families or historians—just as Bennett Miller’s Moneyball completely fictionalizes Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand from actual Assistant General Manager Paul DePodesta while leaving many of the other characters mostly historically intact, probably to allow creative license that wouldn’t have passed DePodesta’s legal team otherwise.  Thus, you can criticize Red Tails all you want to for factual errors because like Moneyball and most attempts at historical recreation that I’ve seen it follows its own needs in rearranging/reimagining actualities in a relatively short dramatic movie, but what really matters is how compelling the story on screen is, even if it’s not your best source for a Jeopardy answer.)

            So, with that HUGE sideways trip completed (and assuming that you’re still diligently reading), I’ll now get what’s left of the review back on the main road with the understanding that the story’s primary participants such as Flight Leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) represent real pilots even if this particular manifestation is a hybrid of actual and fictional Tuskegee Airmen in action as the Allies stormed across Europe in the latter days of WW II.  “Easy” is the rock of the pilots’ missions, even though he has higher-ranking officers on the ground to satisfy (Col. Bullard, Major Stance) and an anxiety-based drinking problem to overcome for the welfare of his men.  The upper echelon officers provide appropriate inspirational encouragement for the pilots prior to the launch of their missions and help keep their frustrations in line with the proper code of military conduct when the pilots’ anger at their backwater action and outdated P-40 Warhawk airplanes threatens to disrupt the continuance of the unit (and Cuba Gooding Jr. gets to do an oddly amusing General Douglas MacArthur imitation with his constant pipe prop), but “Easy” is the reason for success in the air as he keeps his squadron on target during deadly clashes with the more experienced German aces and even talks wounded comrade Declan “Winky” Hall (Leslie Odom Jr.) into a safe return when consciousness and aircraft control are quickly eluding “Easy”'s team member.  But in a film that wants to conquer the stereotypes of gross prejudice, especially the prevailing Army Air Corps notion that black pilots weren’t mentally or emotionally capable of combat missions, “Easy” is just one big war movie stereotype himself as the stoic but psychologically wounded leader who bears the burden of responsibility for every action taken by his men … and by himself, as with his decision to allow enthusiastic Declan back into the air after an injury when he was not really ready for combat again, thus leading to the crisis so narrowly averted.  But "Easy" is up against another typical war movie stereotype in his intra-squad conflicts with brash “top gunner” Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo).

            “Lightning” can’t be kept in a bottle any more than “Easy” can be kept away from one.  He’s the typical talented but arrogant macho stud of the group whose expertise in the air allows him the latitude he forces from “Easy,” but he’s also the one whose anger at the racism he faces from his white “fellow” officers shows no latitude in one critical juncture of the film that threatens the active combat status of the whole unit.  As usual, “Easy” manages to smooth things over and keep the men in the air on the front lines, but “Lightning” has other conquests in mind anyway: Sofia (Daniela Ruah), a lovely local Italian woman whom he falls madly for even just from a flyover of her family home where she’s hanging laundry on her roof.  He’s as insistent on the ground as he is in the air so after a brief and comic courtship with Mama’s supervision (a bit reminiscent of Michael Corleone’s [Al Pacino] equally fast and sanitized connection with Apollonia [Simonetta Stefanelli] during his exile in Sicily in The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, as if I really had to cite this info but I’m trying to be consistent]), “Lightning” and Sofia are married, despite the huge language barriers and cultural differences which seem to matter little to either of them in another of the film’s essentially easy integration of these Airmen into every space they enter.  When tragedy strikes “Lightning,” though, after one last heroic sacrifice during the raid on Berlin it’s up to his long-suffering Flight Commander to break the news to the new bride in a very uneasy scene of heartbreaking wartime tragedy (somewhat reminiscent of bad news coming stateside with another dead husband message in Penny Marshall’s 1992 WW II comic-drama A League of Their Own and innumerable other “horrors of war” stories).  “Lighting” gave his all to take out the chief German villain, cocky pilot “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen), in his best John Wayne fashion—although Wayne rarely died in his films’ combat or gunfight scenes—but he’ll always be remembered in the hearts and minds of those he left behind (including those who return to safety at the last minute after POW capture, such as Ray “Junior” Gannon [Tristan Wilds] in another melodramatic implication that our “hearts will go on” as one loss is balanced by another gain).
          Red Tails is an effective action movie when it’s in action but a bit too reverential to its subject when the guys are giving each other pep talks about the need to overcome adversity and fight for the common good as well as to show their worth to the world.  None of that content is unworthy of a well-tuned drama or of a lesson in humanity to those who denigrated the real Tuskegee Airmen and everyone else who’s judged not on the content of their character but on the color of their skin (or the functions of their genitals or the mobility of their limbs or anything else that stupidly divides us within our common humanity), but this story as told works a lot better in the skies when Lucas can encourage cast and crew to channel their inner Star Wars Rebel Fighters against the Evil Empire (just as Lucas himself is a fan boy for military aviation and based his space dogfights in that galaxy long ago and far away on actual WW II combat footage), cheer themselves on to mutual victory against a soulless enemy, and be part of dynamic flying scenes that move the adrenaline in ways that the ground-bound dialogue just can’t duplicate.  

          This film unfortunately gets no Medal of Honor from me, much as I respect its intentions and contents, because it’s just too corny when it’s trying to be sincere, too tactful in confronting the evil in society (then and now) in hopes of not distracting too much from the heroic exploits of the daring young men in pursuit of victory over enemies foreign and domestic.  Nevertheless, another sort of award came in its unanticipated second-place finish in its opening Jan. 20-22 weekend box-office, with an almost $19 million take, but that’s going to need to go a lot further to recoup Lucas’ personal $58 investment.  However, he didn’t spend money to make money here but to help get a story once again into the public mind (along with the documentary support of his accompanying release of Double Victory), so if he encourages more in-depth understandings and deep appreciation of the real Tuskegee Airmen and their notable contributions to our social advancement (just as I learned a lot more than I ever anticipated in trying to get useful information for what started out—once again—to be a short review), then this film has accomplished its purpose and could well be worth your viewing time as long as you’re not mulling over Oscar-nominated scripts and making kick-the-wounded-dog comparisons.  True, you can more easily escape into varyingly successful degrees of mindless action with Contraband or Haywire, but you’ll learn a lot more, even in an oblique manner, with Red Tails so decide for yourself what you need more of until the ultimate mindless distraction kicks off on Super Bowl Sunday.

            To finish up, the photo to the right is of Tuskegee Airman Clyde Grimes (on the left), not an actor nor a composite character but the real deal, and a couple of his fans.  He’s the Parliamentarian of the San Francisco Bay Area William “Bill” Campbell chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.™  On the week that Red Tails opened in the San Francisco area he was a guest of honor at a reception next door to the Hayward theatre where the film was shown (there were other receptions at other locations that weekend as well, but this is the one that I attended very quickly between two sold-out screenings).

            If you’re interested in exploring Red Tails further here are some suggested links:

            If you prefer action with less social consciousness (or in this case, none, except for the sympathy generated for the locals who attempt to drive around in Panama when Marc Wahlberg’s in a hurry to get to the docks) then you might explore these links for Contraband:  (this one will lead you to another link that will allow you to see the whole film if you like)

            Or, if you prefer your mindless action with a higher level of directorial ability and the largest number of name-brand actors of any of the three reviewed here then you might explore these links for Haywire:

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