Sunday, January 29, 2012

Isaiah Bradley, the New American, and Shout outs to Rogue Squadron

It was before the release of Star Wars Episode III, when I heard George Lucas reveal that he was going to put together a movie about the Tuskeegee Airmen. I remember being very excited about this movie much more so then watching Episode III. Whenever someone would negatively criticize Lucas, I made it a point to bring up the mythical production of a mainstream movie about the Tuskeegee Airmen. Being a historian, World War II has become one of my favorite eras to cover with the contributions by African American pilots and tank crews, Chinese partisans, and Russian female fighter pilots being my favorite parts. So when I saw the preview to "Red Tails," I have to admit that I had a large emotional investment in the project.

American pop culture in general has been very nostalgic when it comes to doing movies or stories about WWII. That war is considered "the just war." It is sacred ground. Anything about segregation, Japanese internment camps, and the dropping of bombs on civilians (Dresden stands out the most) is never to be discussed. The last movie that dealt with segregation in the US military during WWII was HBO's Tuskeegee Airmen in which Lucas took many cues from. With a smaller budget but stellar cast, HBO produced a wonderful piece. Lucas employed probably one of the best satirical writers in Hollywood today: Aaron McGruder and John Ridley. The most critical approach to WWII was put together in comic book form by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker entitled "Truth: Red, White, and Black." It's release in 2003 was controversial in geekdom since the story implied that the U.S. military experimented on African American soldiers with the untested super soldier serum that later made Steve Rogers Captain America. We learn that the original Captain America, Isaiah Bradley, was secretly fighting Nazi's while Rogers was doing parades and USO shows. Thankfully, Marvel Comics has kept Bradley's story as canon. What was interesting in the latest movie adaptation of Captain America is Derek Luke's role as Gabriel Jones one of the members of Howling Commandos. Luke's Gabriel Jones was the renaissance man speaking several languages, able to operate almost every vehicle, out punch any Nazi, and even give a shout out to Howard University.

It's important to note that McGruder on his popular Boondocks series on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, wrote a story about the elder Freeman as a Tuskeegee Airman entitled "Wing Man." It was probably one of the funniest episodes of that season. Ridley also penned a jingoistic period piece entitled "The American Way" for DC Comics about fake superheroes employed by the US government during the Civil Rights era to entertain the public. The black superhero of that story was called "The New American." His power was being impervious to almost anything but the catch was that he would still feel the pain of the particular onslaught be it bullets or flamethrower. We see that same approach to the characters in Red Tails. Most of them are hard, gritty pilots who can match barbs with the best of them but understand that their presence in the Army Air Corps stands by a thread.

Unlike HBO's story of the Fightin' 99th, Red Tails lacks substance. If anything Ne Yo is annoying. There is someone named Joker (Elijah Kelley) but all the comic relief attempts were done by Ne Yo. Cuba Gooding, Jr. was restrained in his role as Major Emanuelle Stance. Although, he had few lines, Gooding did well playing the old pilot dropping jewels on his young fighter pilots. While I love Nate Parker, he did not sell his role as squadron leader Marty "Easy" Julian. The stand out performance was by new comer David Ayewolo who played Easy's Wingman, Joe "Lightning" Little. Ayewolo carried the movie and one couldn't help but root for him. Like any black and white movie produced in the 1950s about WWII pilots, Parker played the by the book squadron leader who has conflicts with the maverick pilot. Unfortunately, we didn't see that chemistry played well between the two.

What I enjoyed the most about the movie is that it was about fighter pilots. Anyone who has worked around fighter pilots will tell you that they are a unique breed who want to see action. They disdain anything that grounds them. I know quite a few Colonels who are up for desk jobs who refuse to do this and want to remain fighter pilots until their heart stops. We see that conflict arise when Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds) is grounded by the flight surgeon. At one point Gannon laments that he would rather die than be grounded. This is how real fighter pilots think. Gannon, who insists on being addressed by his call name "Ray Gun," is referred to as Junior because of his green ears. As he is shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, we see his fellow POWs rely on him. When he escapes and returns to his unit, they immediately call him "Ray Gun." There is even a Nazi villain. What's a fun movie about WWII without it's Nazi villain. The Tuskeegee Airmen even dub him "Pretty Boy." I must admit that I jumped up when he was blown out of the sky.

Overall, the movie could use some work. The acting leaves much to be desired. The pacing is slow. The real struggle of the Tuskeegee Airmen was pretty much written out. Lucas admitted that there was so much to cover and let's face it, the American audience disdains long history lessons. The movie is fun and the action is unparalleled. The dog fights are realistic and the costumes are spot on. I took my daughter to see this. Like my other children, she is familiar with the story of the Tuskeegee Airmen, Patton's Panthers, and Russian women fighter pilots. Like her father, my daughter is a huge Star Wars fan and I wanted to share this moment with her. She found the movie to be fun and entertaining. I think that was the entire point. So this writer salutes Lucas and I hope his gamble pays off.