Action Figures In Living Color


Someday, perhaps even in my lifetime, there will be a feature film about the Tuskegee Airmen where the triumph of African American pilots proving themselves in combat will be attentively offset by the absurdity of making them prove themselves in the first place. Such a movie likewise won’t need to “prove” anything to skeptical bean-counters or rouse audiences from their plush seats with gaudy rhetoric, adamant sincerity or noisy anthems. With the foxy humanism of a Jean Renoir and the informed passion of a Nicholas Ray, such a film would vividly display how these men weren’t just colored-people-in-khakis but the bright, bold vanguard of a generation that would, over time, help invent bebop and the civil rights movement. I have, so to speak, a dream. And such dreams don’t cost me anything.

But dreams are much more than a dime-a-dozen when they’re mass-produced in factories. Because it’s the toy-makers and not the humanists who now more than ever command Hollywood’s ever-wavering attention span, Red Tails is quite likely the best possible Tuskegee Airmen epic we can expect at the millennial hinge. Viewed solely as a product packaged with gleaming action figures, sleek machinery and keen visual effects, this George Lucas production turns out to be – let’s say – not unworthy of its (relatively) widespread publicity campaign or its ($19 million, as of this writing) respectable box-office take. Just as the original 332nd Fighter Group had to settle for bomber escort duty to gain even minimum appreciation, so do those of us awaiting a serious, nuanced Tuskegee Airmen movie have to settle for a gung-ho, by-the-numbers genre picture.

Granted, a gung-ho, by-the-numbers genre picture about black World War II aces is long overdue by about fifty to sixty years; this would be roughly about the time when the great American drive-in rotated such motley guts-and-glory fare as Attack, Battle Cry, Pork Chop Hill, The Steel Helmet, Flying Leathernecks, Hell is for Heroes and Red Ball Express, a 1952 Budd Boetticher film featuring a 25-year-old Sidney Poitier in just his third film role. These days, guts-and-glory WWII movies, as with the Western, tend to be put through the irony shaker after which they come out as Inglorius Basterds.  African-American-oriented commercial films tend to have all or most irony sifted out, unless it’s unintentional or so-over-the-top-it’s-campy. Red Tails isn’t immune to the latter tendency, especially with its snarling, scar-faced Nazi villains and the grandiloquent things the movie makes Terrence Howard say to white and black officers alike. (At one point, he even tells one of the brothers to “man up,” which is so NOT 1945 it stings your ears.)

I refuse to believe that such excesses can be attributed to the sophisticated keyboards of screenwriters John Ridley (“Undercover Brother”) and Aaron McGruder (“The Boondocks”), though I imagine that both understand the dynamics of classic pulp to keep some “Terry and the Pirates”-style brashness out front. Nor can I quite bring myself to blame director Anthony Hemingway, whose hand I can detect more indelibly in those scenes where the guys are just hanging loose and trading quips, much like those deceptively languid interludes in the project courtyards one remembers from The Wire, where Hemingway and some of the movie’s actors plied their trade.  (Hey, Bubbles, aint no skag in that fuselage! So what you doon messin’ with those planes?)

It’s possible that Hemingway may lack some compositional chops, but I still believe it’s Lucas who’s basically the command pilot for this mission, keeping the plot elements flying in tight formation, brushing aside as many wood chips in the dialogue as he wants to, but concerned mostly with keeping things simple and sweet enough for your nine-year-old to retain. In publicizing the film, Lucas even assumed the role usually reserved for aggrieved minority filmmakers by calling out the suits who refused right up till the movie’s release to consider its commercial potential. Some accused Lucas of using a cynical ploy. Whether it was or not, his grievance managed to mobilize minority moviegoers for whom the carpet-bombing of glossy trailers for Red Tails during the NFL playoffs weren’t enough of an incentive. So far it’s working. And besides, who among the studio elite would dare chide the Baron of Skywalker Ranch for being a whiny and/or uppity black man?

Other grievances, of course, have emerged, mostly from African American women who not only feel underrepresented in this mostly male enclave, but are insulted that the movie’s sole romance involves the squadron’s ace (David Oyelowo) with an Italian local (Daniela Ruah). I understand the feeling — and am especially charmed a reference in a review by my old friend Esther Iverem  where she notes that the woman’s photo and a picture of a black Christ are the only decorations in the pilots’ cockpits: “Makes it seem like the Tuskegee Airmen were fighting for Jesus and white women. I don’t know whether to laugh or sigh.”

Other critics have chided Lucas and company for not emphasizing the racism enough. And on some level, it may only double the inequity that the great Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad has limited screen time as the lone surrogate for all the brass hats openly cheering for theTuskegee experiment to crash on takeoff. On the other hand, who needs to hear all those dreary tapes over and over again?  Howard’s Colonel A.J. Bullard (really Benjamin O. Davis Jr., but you already knew that, right?) speaks for all of us in the Age of Obama when he says to theCranston character that (in essence) he doesn’t give a fuck what the palefaces think of his men.

So now that’s over with, we can just let the fellas fly. And as you’ve probably heard by now, the movie soars highest when the planes do. Though there isn’t anything here that matches the best set pieces in any of the six films in Lucas’ Skywalker Chronicles, it’s as gratifying as it is thrilling to watch black pilots carrying out barrel rolls, loops and dogfights without thinking of them as victims first. They’re not quite characters either. They’re more archetypes with quirks and foibles writ large (The One Who Drinks Too Much, The One Who Nods Sagely & Smokes a Pipe, The One Who Drawls Down-Home Jokes and so forth.) Once again, old genre conventions, like Massa’s old hand-me-downs, are presented to African Americans as fresh togs with the challenge to make them look brand new. As always, the talent manages to do just that, though not quite enough to make you forget that you’re watching action figures in a comic book. But that’s what movies are, mostly because of George Lucas. So we’ll settle for Red Tails until it’s time for the movies to grow up again.