I feel for George Lucas. I like him a lot personally. But I’ve just read the long piece in yesterday’s New York Times about “Red Tails.” Also, I followed his interview on “The Daily Show.” He really feels that his movie won’t get a fair shake because it’s only got black actors. He also thinks if it fails, black directors will have a lot of trouble getting their movies made. Here’s the problem: “Red Tails” is a bad movie. White actors wouldn’t have changed that. Plenty of all-black or mostly black acted films do business and get accolades. “The Help” is a hit. Last week, the Critics Choice Awards gave Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress to two black actors–Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Has there been racism in Hollywood? Yes, indeed. But that’s not what this is about.
Lucas is too close to “Red Tails” to see what a mess it is. The intentions are so honorable: tell the stories of the Tuskegee Airmen. But “Red Tails” doesn’t do that. It’s all surface, like a weird History Channel filmstrip. The script is very bad–it’s just cardboard cutouts blabbing silly generic homilies to each other. Cuba Gooding, Jr. goes around puffing pompously on a pipe; Terrence Howard is a squeaky demander of the group’s rights. They are not effective. True, we see a lot of dogfights, planes zooming in and out. But most of it is computer generated. And a lot of that is terribly fake looking.
The Tuskegee Airmen were an experiment, something not quite explained in this film. Their success meant the desegregation of the US Army. Indeed, the whole theme of race is given a very Disneyesque treatment. Black pilots aren’t allowed in the commissioned officers’ club. There’s almost a scene where this inequality is addressed, and then it’s dropped. Later, when the black pilots are heroes. they’re invited into the club as if nothing ever happened. It’s quite peculiar.
Everything about “Red Tails” rings hollow as film: its look, pace, tone, and texture. The film has a bland look, and a bland attitude. It’s sort of shocking that, in what is essentially a George Lucas movie (much of director Anthony Hemingway‘s is said to have been re-shot and re-written) there is nothing going on, on screen. It all seems quite stagey and stiff. It’s frustrating, especially compared with Steven Spielberg‘s “Saving Private Ryan” and the war scenes from “War Horse.” Maybe it’s a lack of cinematography, I don’t know.
So it’s disappointing. And then there are the white actors. Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney and Lee Tergesen seem to be blow up dolls for the HOV lane, positioned just to be yelled at or chastised by Howard or Gooding, Jr. They have no particular function other than to be targets. And as for Howard or Gooding–really, they just make speeches and declarations. I really liked Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, and singer NeYo, however. And I know Lucas wanted Terrence Blanchard for the score, but it’s corny, heavy handed and relentless.
Yes, debates are raging about black movies. But in the debate maybe we forget the recent “The Great Debaters,” a lovely film; or “Antwone Fisher,” which had powerful debut performances from Derek Luke, Joy Bryant, and especially Viola Davis; or “Precious” or the current “Pariah.” Black filmmaking will survive “Red Tails,” one way or the other. In the meantime, if you want a history lesson, check out the documentary Lucas has made about the Tuskeegee Airmen.
To the real Tuskeegee Airmen, especially the ones we met at the premiere: we salute you. Your contribution to history should only continue to be acknowledged and celebrated.