‘Red Tails’ a disservice to Tuskegee Airmen

Courtland Milloy
Columnist January 29, 2012

The movie “Red Tails” could not possibly have been “inspired by” the Tuskegee Airmen, as billed, for it is little more than a black comedy about guys who clown and connive their way through World War II, supposedly as combat pilots.

Disheveled, undisciplined, crude and uncouth, they are the exact opposite of the real men who served in the all-black fighter group in the 1940s.

In this movie — which has raked in millions of dollars at the box office and even got a thumbs up from President Obama — the squad leader finds courage in a bottle of booze while his wingman’s lust for an Italian woman leads to insubordination. During dogfights with the German Luftwaffe, the black pilots behave like kids in a video arcade.

“Stop fooling around,” the booze-head captain tells his womanizing lieutenant, who has disobeyed orders to engage a more experienced enemy.

“I’m just playing with him,” the lieutenant replies.

This is not just a bad film; it is ridiculous. It caricatures the black airmen with the very stereotypes they fought so hard to dispel in real life.

“I wanted to make it inspirational for [African American] teenage boys,” producer George Lucas said in an interview with John Stewart on “The Daily Show.” “I wanted to show that they have heroes that are real American heroes that are patriots that helped make this country what it is today.”

So he turns the story of the famed Tuskegee Airmen into the first-ever happy-go-lucky hip-hop war movie.

The cast includes several actors from the HBO TV series “The Wire,” two of whom played street-corner killers and one who was a heroin addict. One combat pilot talks like Bubba, the black country bumpkin in the movie “Forrest Gump,” while another sounds like a jive-talking Chris Tucker, the squealing comic who co-starred with Jackie Chan in the series of “Rush Hour” action comedies.

“If somebody asks me something about the war,” a black airman says, “I’m going to make something up.”

A real laugh riot, this movie.

In reality, the Tuskegee Airmen placed a premium on discipline, precision, order and military bearing. After all, they were under the command of Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a black man from the District, whose rank as an Air Force general and whose education — 35th out of 276 at West Point, class of 1936 — was awe inspiring.

Davis stood 6-foot-4 and weighed in at a trim 200 pounds. Terrence Howard, who sang “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in the movie “Hustle and Flow,” hardly fills those shoes.

“The men knew that their all-black fighter group was an experiment that many people wanted to see fail,” J. Byron Morris, past president of the East Coast chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, told me. “They wanted us to self-destruct. But B.O. Davis kept them on the straight and narrow, and the men were too self-respecting to fall apart.”

During a recent screening of the movie sponsored by the National Association of Black Journalists, I sat with Morris and several other Tuskegee Airmen. The men were pleased that the history of the black pilots, gunners and mechanics was getting so much attention, and they were grateful to Lucas for using $93 million of his own money to help bankroll the film.

Nevertheless, they saw little of themselves on the screen. Davis would not have tolerated the fist fights, aerial stunts, drunkenness and insubordination. For my money, Lucas could have depicted the pilots as they were — as distinctive as the squad led by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” or the group of soldiers in the television series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”

He could have at least made them appear credible as pilots.

The question that loomed largest over the 332nd Fighter Group was whether they were intelligent enough to fly. The doubts, deeply rooted in racism, persist to this day. Of 14,130 Air Force pilots in 2009, just 270 identified themselves as black — fewer than 2 percent — according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

So it was particularly egregious to have those black pilots clowning in the cockpit, engaged in dogfights that weren’t just fiction but science fiction. Rather than showing how the black pilots actually fared in combat, the film shows them magically flying propeller-driven planes fast enough to catch German jets that were 100 miles per hour faster.

They could turn on a dime, too, as if piloting Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon at warp speed in one of Lucas’s “Star Wars” episodes.

Unbelievable.

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