(CBS) The history of the Tuskegee Airmen is significant and "Red Tails," George Lucas' labor of love, some 23 years in the making, is a story that needs to be told. And, thanks to the extraordinary success of the first all black elite air corps squadron, it's inspirational.
Yet this story has another historical significance. In a Hollywood where African-Americans and minority actors still struggle to find their voice, a drama with an all-black, male-lead cast, with each of the main characters given a chance to showcase his ability, is a rarity, even today. That's not to imply that racism exists among tinsel town's studio heavyweights; I can't be the judge of that.
George Lucas, however, acknowledged on a recent appearance on the "The Daily Show" what a difficult time he had, even with his pedigree, getting any major studio to take this movie seriously, because it featured an all African American cast of heroes. He was very matter-of-fact in his analysis of the situation: studios simply did not think it made economic sense to make a movie of this kind without a top-caliber director, the likes of Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, behind it.
Films like "Invictus" starring Morgan Freeman and "The Blind Side" with Sandra Bullock, of course received critical acclaim and even Oscar nominations. Yet, were they really about the blacks in the films, or the experience and support given to them by a white soccer player (Matt Damon), or a white woman's compassion towards a struggling African American kid? Historically, movies with African American heroes also need a Caucasian element to make them more broadly appealing to general audiences. Lucas was so passionate about making this film, he poured his own money into the project, serving as the film's executive director, before he went back to studios telling them why this film was worthy of their attention and backing.
"Red Tails" is a watered-down account of the plight and racial injustices faced by African Americans during World War II. It has to be watered-down, in my opinion, to tell a tale that reveals the racism that existed, but that also entertains and most importantly, makes money. Given those parameters, "Red Tails" is a soaring success.
The Tuskegee Airmen began when the Civil Aeronautics Authority selected 13 cadets to participate in an experiment at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. It was aimed at discovering whether "colored personnel" could become combat pilots fit for service in the Army Air Corps. Every step of the experiment was plagued with extreme discrimination and a lack of institutional support. There was the inherent belief that these men lacked the intelligence and aptitude to become first rate Army pilots. History proved these naysayers wrong. By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen had earned 96 Distinguished Unit Citations and individually, many went on to earn Silver Stars, Purple Hearts and hundreds of others distinguished awards and medals.
George Lucas' telling captures a moment of transformation when African-Americans were first granted the right to fight in a war to protect the U.S. Rather than being a film bogged down in history, it is an action-packed, feel-good film about skilled, brave men sent on phenomenally challenging missions, punctuated with superb aerodynamic action, the likes of which, only Lucas could achieve.
Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard is razor-sharp as Col. A.J. Bullard. He and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. portray two men who believe in their squad, driving them to succeed in their efforts and reminding them they cannot afford to fail in their mission.
The emotional core of the film comes from the relationship between "Lightening" (David Oyelowo) and his squadron leader "Easy" (Nate Parker). Lightening is the unit's best, a daredevil who often "flies under the radar" disobeying orders to take out enemy targets. Easy is a man with a heavy weight on his shoulders, leading his squad and living up to his father's high expectations. It's not an easy feat, and it's one that leads him to drink - before and after his missions. Oyelowo is excellent in his portrayal of a young man determined to succeed and win victory for a country that has done so little for him personally. A secondary storyline, where he falls for an Italian woman he sees while flying low over her home after a successful mission, is less compelling. It serves as a distraction, as opposed to having the humanizing effect it was meant to engender.
Singer Ne-Yo also makes an appearance, playing "Smokey," and together with Elijah Kelley's "Joker" provides a nice range of characters. These guys are not all cut from the same cloth and director Anthony Hemingway did an effective job keeping each of his characters distinct and unique.
Of course, the highlights are the visual effects and complicated dogfights these airmen get into. Wide shots showcased dramatic dodge-'em and divide 'em moves and captured the intensity and vulnerability of flying in planes that are a far cry from the sophisticated military technology of today. There was an almost cavalier attitude of the airmen while in combat. Speaking to Roscoe Brown, one of the original airmen who who served as a consultant on the film, I asked if there was a time when any of the squad was "fearful" about going out on a mission. With a glint in his eye, he laughed:"If you were afraid, there was no call for you to be out there. Apprehensive yes, but we were never afraid of what we had to do."
For his part, Brown is extremely proud of the final product. He says it captures a time in history that has not fully been illuminated, though, he says he is glad the film doesn't focus entirely on the racism that existed in the military. He says "Red Tails" serves as a testament to the "bravery and cam:raderie" the Tuskegee Airmen had in the face of incredible hardship. He said they were resolute in their objective - to earn the right to fight for and protect their country. A feat they accomplished in spades.