Sunday, January 22, 2012

Red Tails [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Red Tails (directed by Anthony Hemingway, screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder based on the book by Red Tails: An Oral History of the Tuskegee Airmen by John. B. Holway) IMHO gives viewers of the film an indispensable complement to the famed Band of Brothers [2001] HBO-television mini-series based on a similarly styled book by Stephen Ambrose.  Indeed John. B. Holway could perhaps be called this generation's African American Stephen Ambrose for writing not merely the book on the Tuskegee Airmen but also writing a series of books on the Negro Baseball League of the first half of the 20th century when the segregationist Jim Crow laws still ruled America's South.

Indeed, so good, so historically important and so frankly _family oriented_ is Red Tails that I find it surprising (to say the least...) that the CNS/USCCB website would categorize the movie as A-III (for adults) unless such previous World War II classics as Cornelius Ryan's Longest Day [1962] (staring John Wayne) and the Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers [2001] series (produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks) were classified A-III (for adults) as well.

So what is the movie about?  It is about the Tuskegee Airmen the first and only African-American fighter group to serve in World War II.  A parallel African American bomber group was also "worked-up" at the time but never served in a combat role (no mind, at least that bomber group never had the blood of innocents on its hands, as carpet bombing of civilians, now considered by the Geneva Conventions and since at least the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes #79) by the Catholic Church to be a war crime had been considered standard operating procedure by all parties in that conflict).

Returning to the fighter group of the Tuskegee Airmen, the film begins with the group already serving in Italy, if still flying outdated P-40 aircraft on essentially mop-up operations.  That the whole Tuskegee "experiment" had been saved by then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who scoffing at the then U.S. military's official assessment that "negroes lacked the intelligence to operate heavy machinery" came to the Tuskegee base on her own to "inspect" it and then insisted on _being flown_ by one of its recently trained African American airmen was not mentioned in the film, even though the incident was unfortunately true.

Eventually, faced with appalling bomber losses, the American Army Air Force allowed the Tuskegee Fighter Group (99th Fighter Squadron) to both get better planes (P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs) and fly bomber escort missions.  However, they were only allowed to fly such missions after extracting a promise from the African American fighting unit that apparently the AAF could not extract from white units -- that the fighters would stay with the bombers throughout their escort missions rather than pursue German fighters (often flown actually as decoys) in pursuit of individual glory.  (The film makes a point of noting that the white fighter pilots were nominally not doing anything wrong, that they _had been trained_ to pursue German fighters until shooting them down upon engaging them.  Nevertheless, that tactical training had proven disastrous for bomber squadrons who were often left to their own devices after Germans lured away their fighter escorts with squadrons flying, in effect, as decoys).  The African American fighter pilots, perhaps recognizing that little glory was going to go to them anyway if they chased German fighters in hopes of shooting them down, made the decision to follow orders and stick with the bombers.  As a result, bomber losses dropped significantly and the white bomber crews became immensely appreciative of their African American escorts.  (Indeed, the discipline and self-sacrifice of non-white units such as the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, helped drive the decision soon after the War to desegregate the U.S. military putting the first really big crack into the wall of racial segregation that existed in the United States at the time and allowing the U.S. to approach its next war, in Korea, with a desegregated military).

The film follows then the stories of various members of the Tuskegee fighter group, from its commanders to its pilots to its mechanics.

A particularly interesting aspect of the film was its treatment of fraternization between the African American airmen and (white) Italian women.  One of the airmen Joe 'Lightning' Little (played by David Oyelowo) was portrayed as having an Italian girl-friend Sofia (played by Daniela Ruah) who lived with her mother.

I found the scenes remarkably well done and in conformity with what my own parents and uncles/aunts who had lived in Czechoslovakia at the time remembered of their encounters with African-American soldiers near the end of the war.  My mother's family was, in fact, liberated by an African American armored unit presumably making-up part of Patton's 3rd Army, and one of my uncles on my father's side may have seen with his own eyes one of the Tuskegee fighter pilots in action noting that near the end of the war there was one time in which an American plane had swooped down low over the village where my dad's family had come from, so low in fact that he could see that the plane was being flown by an African American pilot.

My parents' generation was still too young to date at the time.  But it was clear from their stories that the Czechs (like the Italians portrayed in the film) were frankly intrigued by the African American soldiers. For up until the closing stages of the war these were men that they had never seen before.

As one of Czech descent, I would also note some, admittedly irrational, pride in the fact that a good part of this film was filmed in the Czech Republic (There's a scene in which the beautiful Karlstejn Castle is shown in a flying sequence) and as a consequence the closing credits are heavily seasoned with Czech names.

In the United States, the Slavs have not been exactly known to be the most "racially open" of peoples.  Yet perhaps because the Czechs and the Slovaks are such small peoples and themselves know a good deal about oppression, they have found a way to get past previous racial bigotry.

Of course the real test in this regard is in these nations' treatment of their own populations of "people of color," that is, of their treatment of the gypsies.  And the record there has not been particularly good.  Still it made me feel very good to see a film about African American airmen being filmed so prominently in the land where my parents had come from and with so many Czechs involved in its production as well.

Would I recommend this film?  Absolutely.  There is nothing in this film that parents should be wary of.  Yes, it's a war film.  There is some blood.  But unless one is forbidding one's kids from seeing other World War II classics like the above mentioned Longest Day [1962], I just don't see why one would want to keep one's kids from seeing this film.  It is about history, both about World War II and about the United States of that time.  Knowing one's history makes for better people and for a better world.

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