Red Tails is without a doubt the most expensive ABC after school special ever made. I went home after seeing it and immediately downloaded A Soldier’s Story from Amazon to flush Red Tail’s god awful dialogue out of my head. I guess I’m supposed to be pleased that George Lucas poured over $100 million dollars of his own money into this project when Hollywood studios kept vetoing his fictional depiction of the exploits of a squadron from the all black 332nd Fighter Group. I am certainly happy that the actors found paying jobs in an industry that has very few roles for black men. If the Oscars had a category for “historical feature film about the military with the least amount of profanity”, this movie would win hands down.
So I watched A Soldier’s Story last night when I got home. Its initial scenes, after the opening one in the juke joint, contrary to what I remembered, had the same kind of long slow buildup as Red Tails. There were some of the same awkward moments when the script attempted to neatly telegraph racial hatred that there were all throughout Red Tails. And then, little by little, as Howard Rollins began questioning the black soldiers about the death of their black sergeant, the level of intensity in A Soldier’s Story ratcheted up until I could feel the tension between the actors through the screen of my laptop. The dialogue began to seem more spontaneous, more tailored to the nuances each individual actor could bring to the table until I actually started to care about what happened to them.
George Lucas is an undisputed master technician when it comes to creating exciting aerial dogfights, whether they are aircraft or spaceships. But the acting matters too. Maybe it is hard to convey on film the kind of men who often became Tuskegee Airmen. There was no way, from what I saw in Red Tails, to get any real sense of the intellectual capacities of the pilots. There was no way, from what was presented in the film, to understand what had driven these young black men, at a time when black Americans were still forced to ride on the back of the bus, to decide to become fighter pilots.
Surprisingly, since the creator of The Boondocks was a screenwriter, there was no acknowledgement that a group of young college educated black men who are forced to live together would probably engage in some high level, high octane shit talking that would include some intergroup usage of the n-word. And with a group of young virile men, the kind who would either already be married or have serious girlfriends, how come there were no pictures of their girlfriends or wives? I would have even gone for the tired old cinematic trope of a soldier reading a letter from his girl aloud to his bunkmates if it had the chance of showing us that these men loved and were loved.
I have to wonder—if the parts played by Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. had gone to some lesser known black character actors, would that have forced the director to focus more on the lives and backstories of Marty “Easy” Julian and Joe “Lighting” Little? Terrance Howard’s thin, whispery voice didn’t really have the timbre to convey the sense that he was a commander to be reckoned with, and I am still wondering what Cuba Gooding Jr. was doing with that pipe that looked so unnatural in his mouth. I felt like I should have cared more about Easy and Lightning, but as a viewer, I had no opportunity to gain any intimate knowledge about who these two men really were from the way they were portrayed.
And yet, at the end of the evening, for all the cringing I did at the dialogue, for all the silent screaming I did at the screen when the director missed expanding on the little things, there was still a strong sense of pride at seeing handsome young black men who gave orders and made important decisions and blew up German planes. Sitting in a packed suburban theatre where 90% of the audience was white while Ne-Yo, an Atlanta based rapper who played Andrew “Smoky” Salem, kept exhorting “you got that black Jesus lookin after you” to a fellow pilot whose plane had been strafed by enemy gunfire was hilarious.
I have to ask all of my African American brethren who turned out this week and last week, like our household did, to show our support for Red Tails—does this mean we are going to get more movies with cardboard black characters, banal dialogue, and scripts that dance gingerly and predictably around the subject of race in America? Or will its financial performance provide confirmation to an industry that already feels the odds are against recouping any investment in big budget movies with Afro-American storylines?