One person's thoughts may change the world
I am torn to write this blog. There is nothing I like more than to see African-American actors telling a story, our own story of triumph of adversity. It puts to myth many of the brain washing this country (U.S.) has gone through about race. It speaks to what many had to endure in the past, and allows us to reflect on how much “easier” it is to cope in at times, an unequal playing field. In addition it gives many an opportunity to see African-American actors on-screen, both new and old faces, and to see how that have crafted their gifts on the screen. Many months ago, a good friend of mine told me they were doing a movie about the “Tuskegee Airmen”.
“Brutha, where have you been, that story has already been told, and actually quite well staring my man Lawrence Fishburne”, I responded back to him.
“Yea I know, but this time, better special effects, it’s going to be great”, he said. “Cuba Gooding Jr. is also in it as well”, he continued.
“Excuse me, he was in the first one”, I responded back.
“Hey all I know is it’s going to be better than the first. That was a HBO special, this one is for the big screen and George Lucas is behind it. Terrance Howard is in it too”, he said.
“Brutha, I thought you didn’t like Terrance, you know that movie you hate but I love – Hustle & Flow”, as I began to sing “You know it’s hard out here for a pimp……”, followed by laughter.
“George Lucas, now why would George Lucas do a movie featuring predominately black actors, and telling it again, why this story?”, I asked again.
“Hey man, you know he’s dating a black woman now”, he said jokingly.
We broke into laughter again. Now don’t read anything into my response, he and I usually play a game of saying something on the edge of being controversial, then making a joke of such a statement because of its Neanderthal though process.
So, last night, I went to go see Red Tails. I was expecting a lot, especially after seeing a clip of George Lucas on the John Daily show talking about how to get any backing from the major film studios. He spoke of it being a 10 year dream of putting the movie together, and investing a lot of his money into the film to bring it to the big screen. He also spoke of how the major studios told him that “black” films do well overseas; these same studios get about 60% of their screen revenue overseas. George Lucas sounded sincere in his analysis, even speaking about the advent of other director/producers like Tyler Perry, and how he creates films to specific audiences. I am not of the school of thinking that only black people can tell “black” stories. But I do think that black people give insight to those stories that may not be reflected upon being told by someone of another race. It sounded like George had done his homework.
Now whenever you do a movie that has been done previously you have many things to overcome. First of all, you probably would not be doing the movie of the first one had not had success, or, it was a good story that had to be told to a different generation. Second, there has to be an acceptance of the new characters playing previous characters that may have been imprinted upon an audience of the movie. He director has to be aware of classic scenes, dialog, visual effects, etc. There is a lot of risk and reward of attempting to “redo” a movie. Add the layer of bringing a predominately African-American cast as well as debt to the story… things can get complicated.
I said all that to say, I had trouble with the film. Not that I didn’t like it, but I had trouble with it. The first scene brought us up to date, which was 1944. 1944, well there was only one more year to go in the war at that point, and I didn’t see the significance of starting the movie at such a late date in the war. To contrast, “The Tuskgee Airmen” started with the soldiers arriving at boot camp, and being summarily dressed down by their ranking officer. Afterwards there was a significant scene in the “Tuskgee Airmen”, with the soldiers introducing themselves to each other and telling what school they came from. For historical purposes, having a degree at that times in American being African-American was a very small percentage, so there was an effort by the United States government to bring in what they considered the “cream of the crop” in order to have success in such an “experiment”. No such scene existed in “Red Tails”, only the scene where the airman brought up the face their superior officer was in Washington DC trying to maintain the program.
Second was the breath of the first movie, which took you from training, trials and tribulation, being trained by a black Canadian officer, taking up the President’s wife in a plane, and then finally being stationed in the field of battle, while always enduring the indignity of racism. “Red Tails” time line was choppy and inconsistent. They were already stationed. The audience had no sense of their background, where they were from, and what influenced them. But when they finally got a chance to go up against German pilots, they performed without hesitation. The first movie showed the fear of battle that all soldiers go through, this one acted as if these men were gods of war taking on German 109’s with outdated planes as if technology didn’t play a part of taking on better performing airplanes.
The visual breath of “Red Tails” was absolutely great. There is no comparison between both films, “Red Tails” given all of George Lucas’s special effects team, did a wonderful job. But, special effects do not make a movie, which goes back to storyline and actors.
The name of Lawrence Fishburne speaks for itself, even when the film was made. I may be bias of his acting, but he’s always been a commanding actor onscreen, and because he’s an actor I can directly correlate with my age, as well as watch him grow as an actor over the years, he’s one of my favorites. I first saw him in Cornbread, Earl and me. I said all that to say, he did a great job in “The Tuskegee Airmen”, which I will now refer to as TTA.
There were other strong characters in TTA, ie Andre Braugher, Allen Payne, as well as familiar ones, such as Malcolm-Jamal Warner. In “Red Tails”, the standout was David Oyelowo, who was clearly the featured actor in the story. Nate Parker, who also did a great job, was a little hard to believe to be a functional alcoholic, given the strength in his character. Terrence Howard was serviceable, but the role he played didn’t give him an opportunity to expand upon it. Finally there is Cuba Gooding Jr. It’s amazing that this academy award winner cannot find his footing, or command better roles for himself. He was hardly believable in his dialog and the pip just didn’t fit him. What a waste, he’s a great actor. Men of honor was one of his better roles, to which told a full story from being enlisted through all the trials he went through. Tristan Wilds did a good job, but again, was hampered by his role and storyline. The first time he was shot up in flight was believable, but to be shot down over enemy territory, quickly captured, sent to a POW camp which happen to have no problem with you being black and was planning “The Great Escape “at the same time, and making his way back to the base before the movie ended was…. Unbelievable. It didn’t happen. You can’t script something like that. In TTA most of the air wing died, but, ended with a positive and uplifting note, to which was had you wanting more. “Red Tails” ending just made you happy the movie was over. Nice try George, but you missed the mark. By the way, I have a script for you… I really do, based upon my book… Hmmmm I hope he reads this.
I want to make clear that the film’s visual effects were great. They tried to make a good story out of it, even adding a love story to it. The Tuskegee airmen deserve a better film than this one. A more “fuller” story about their backgrounds should have been wrote into the script. A more complete version could have been told in several mini-series, such as band-of-brothers which chronicled the exploits of a platoon during WWII in Europe as well as the Pacific. Could you imagine a similar series with the Tuskegee Airmen? WOW, life before going off into service as an African-American, their family life, their trials at home as well as abroad, then finally coming back home to experience the same racism that cloaked their lives before they left? Wow, now that’s a story. These men broke major ground and paved the way for Civil Rights for all people. The helped bring down the color barrier in the services which was taken down in 1947. That same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Heck in the 30’s Joe Louis defeated the German Max Schmeling in 1938 and two years before Jesse Owen’s won 4 gold medals at the Olympic Games in Germany paving the way African-American contribution to national pride and distinction. Now that would be an interesting story, the Jesse Owen’s story….
Peace Mickey Fickey…