African American history is a valuable resource that remains largely untapped by Hollywood. When one of these stories actually makes its way to the big screen, it does so in an antiseptic and often emasculated state. This is sometimes the result of political correctness on the part of white filmmakers, (in the rare instances that they don’t marginalize black characters in their own story). Handing the material over to black filmmakers might seem like an obvious solution, but that to can have its drawbacks. So many of the old guard are solely concerned with presenting positive black images, to the point where they forget to allow the story to simply tell itself. Its seems that great stories of the black experience in America may never get the ideal treatment. Well, the upcoming Red Tails aims to be the antidote for all that ails black historical dramas.
Red Tails tells the tale of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black World War II fighter pilots. Originally prohibited from actually fighting in the war, the US military finally decides to partake of their skills when all else fails. They are called upon to provide daylight escorts for bombers after the allied forces have sustained crippling causalities. While that conflict rages on foreign soil, the Airmen fight for equal treatment in the very country that they serve. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place, fighting for a country that denies them the basic human rights they willfully and dutifully lay down their lives for.
George Lucas, now perhaps the most despised man in all of fandom, has been developing Red Tails for about 23 years. In 1995, HBO produced a television movie titled The Tuskegee Airmen that had no connection to Lucas’s pet project. The idea continued to gestate. At one point, Sam Jackson was to star in and direct the film. Finally, with both the Star Wars prequels and the fourth Indiana Jones film out of the way, Lucasfilm put Red Tails into production. Anthony Hemingway, a veteran of quality television series such as The Wire and Treme, was hired on to direct. Comedian and writer John Ridley was commissioned to develop the screenplay. The eclectic cast includes a varied list of actors and recognizable personalities such as Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Method Man, Ne-Yo, and Bryan Cranston.
Considerable effort obviously went into the planning stages of this film, but is any of that evident in the trailer? The dramatic elements seem typical of this kind of film. The black characters all have an air of stoic righteousness, and speak in terms of testimonials. Yet, there is one element of the trailer that shines oh so brightly. The aerial dogfights boast state of the art CGI that isn’t at all obvious. In just the scant few seconds that are shown, the scenes of fighter planes in combat are eye catching. Audiences have become so used to seeing white characters in the cockpits of such aircraft, that the sight of black characters at the controls is both jarring and exhilarating.
I really do hope that Red Tails offers more than the stoic posturing evident in this trailer. The Tuskegee Airmen were real guys who lead real lives. They chose to fight for a country that didn’t truly value them or their service. That kind of story deserves a real film that will stand the test of time, and not simply a glorified history lesson. Those inspired moments of aerial combat give me hope that Lucas, Hemingway, and Ridley have allowed elements of mythmaking into the mix. This story deserves to be something truly special. Let’s hope that the long gestation period serves Red Tails better than it did The Phantom Menace.