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Thursday, January 26, 2012


A prominent executive producer publicly stated that financing and distributing the WWII-fighter pilot movie “Red Tails” was hindered primarily by movie studios’ racism. Or, to be more specific, the major movie studios feared that the rest of the world was too racist to go see a big-budget war movie starring a predominately black cast. Following through on the pessimism, 20th Century Fox dumped the movie in late January, when ticket numbers reach annual lows rivaled only by the month of September. This is a conversation worth having.

With the film starring Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr, are we going to get some Oscar-caliber acting?
Nope. But Howard will chew on some scenery and Gooding will chew on his pipe in a distracting caricature of Black Douglas MacArthur. Also, both are given a smaller font than one George Lucas.

Wait. George Lucas? The Star Wars guy?
Lucas has an executive producer credit. Which is the same credit he had in “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” However, it’s also the same credit he had in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Howard the Duck.” In short, “Red Tails” can not be chalked up as yet another Lucas tragedy but his finger prints are there.

Fake-looking, colorful CGI backgrounds?

This is a historical movie, right? How’s the history?
This is a war movie and as historically accurate as any war movie. The facts are there, but the characters were created by precedents and focus groups. In WWII, the U.S. military was racially segregated and movies like “Captain America” throw the audience out of a story by forcibly demonstrating otherwise. There was no unit that had the genetic makeup of a 1940s-version Power Ranger team.

So what, this is like “Saving Black Private Ryan”?
The worst irony may be that while studios won’t support all-black cast movies (for rather dubious reasons), they also require racial diversity. To be historically accurate, “Saving Private Ryan” couldn’t have black characters. But then again, the film’s platoon had Vin Diesel…though I’m not sure if he counts. However, since he was the first character to die in that film, I suppose he was meant to be at least a stand-in for diversity incarnate.

But there was a Tuskegee Airmen fighter group?
Yeah, of course. And this film doesn’t bother to stray too much from historical accuracy to be a sequel to “Soul Plane.”

Thank God. I hate Tom Arnold.
Unfortunately, the Tom Arnold-character is this time played Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston. For painfully dull reasons, the character articulates the driest Southern accent and every other white, superior officer character joins along.

Okay, forget about “Soul Plane,” I can think of one other cinematic black pilot.
Will Smith in “Independence Day”? Yeah. But his blackness is offset by his clearly black, sidekick, best friend character played by Harry Connick, Jr. And don’t worry, it’s okay for me to say that--as I have several white friends.

Wow, strayed a bit from “Red Tails,” there.
Al Sharpton, renowned for his cinematic clarity and expertise, called “Red Tails” one of the best movies he’s ever seen. This should not act as a deterrent to white audiences though. The movie is meant for easy consumption; cheap entertainment with a slight sense of self-importance. Aerial action scenes occupy more screen time than reflections on racism. Furthermore, the inevitable discussions on race only range between bland and stereotypical, with nothing coming within a mile of the venom or mean-spirited nature of a Spike Lee joint.

How is this even remotely a movie review?
The movie itself is regrettably secondary to people’s pre-conceptions of the movie. The movie offers absolutely nothing new in terms of cinema iconography. And regrettably so. The movie has to be discussed entirely in terms of racism because ultimately the movie is just a collection of war-movie stereotypes. Beautiful European girl named Sophia. Comically religious guy. The "kid” character. Stoic, straight-laced leader. Hot shot renegade. Dumb explosions. Pointlessly evil German. Racist befriending a black guy. Insurmountable odds overcome. More dumb explosions. Jive-talking mechanic. Unnamed characters taking the place of narrators in the middle of a fight-scene in case blind people are watching the film. Characters overcoming language barriers. The alcoholic. The musician. Uncanny predictions of the future. Ending title cards listing the numerical medals and causalities. The real-life war veteran in the audience who gives the film a solitary standing ovation during the ending credits.

Wow. Sounds like every war movie ever.
And to think, if the movie had only been filmed entirely in black and white we could have been talking about the virtues of archival footage. Or perhaps government-controlled media or the evolution of cinematic realism. Instead we are subjected to regurgitated banalities and aimless patriotism.

Is this movie ending or extending racism?
Ending, easily. While offering something new in the world of cinema would have been preferable, we can at least come together as a society to denounce weak storytelling techniques. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to demonstrate to the audiences that not only were black pilots as courageous as whites in a pre-Truman world, but that they, seventy years later, can create a movie as devoid of originality as any production team of white millionaires.

Was there a black guy in “Flyboys?”
If you thought of that movie before this point, I pity you. Aerial warfare in movies is sweet, but mostly just in theory. Few movies about pilots are even watchable. God knows “Stealth” wasn’t.

I don’t think I’ll see “Red Tails”…
Don’t like black and white stories, huh? Then you might be interested in this new movie coming out, starring Liam Neeson called “The Grey.”

Oh come on!
Nailed it!

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