George Lucas’s Red Tails is something like the plastic Buck Rogers ray gun that one of the film’s characters, a World War II fighter pilot, carries as a good-luck charm. It’s juvenile, cannot perform its supposed function (whether vaporizing aliens or illuminating the lives of historic figures) and replicates something that does not exist. As much an ontological conundrum as it is a popular entertainment, Red Tails is a facsimile of the rousing, simple-minded movie that Warner Brothers did not make in 1944 about the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Lucas clearly believes that the omission of such a movie from the slates of Warner Brothers and all other studios was an injustice, explicable only by racism, and of course he’s right. Bad enough that the first African-American combat unit permitted in the Air Force, grudgingly assigned the oldest and crankiest planes and the least consequential missions, had to struggle for the opportunity to die for their country. Worse still that after they had proved their worth, the Tuskegee Airmen were denied the only general recognition that American culture then afforded: a movie of their own. But what an odd way for Lucas to right the wrong, by imitating the phantom postwar object down to the corn and clunkers! Brat-a-tat go the guns, as the old-school editing scheme takes you from a wide, airborne establishing shot to a tight close-up of a pilot declaiming, “Germans! Let’s get ‘em!”
I would dismiss this stuff as just more of Lucas’s schlock antiquarianism were it not for the final trait that Red Tails shares with the plastic ray gun. Both artifacts, though fakes, testify to the way people use pop culture to manage real fears.
The fears confronted in the movie are compelling enough, however notional the characters who feel them. The film’s airmen face the recurring but intermittent threat of death meted out by German forces, coupled with the pervasive and possibly permanent threat of dishonor imposed by white American society. To ward off panic and despair, each character has a method of coping that is as readily identifiable as his nickname and its accompanying cartoon logo, which is helpfully painted onto the fuselage of his plane. The owner of the plastic ray gun is Junior (Tristan Wilds), the youngest and most eager of the pilots. Deke (Marcus T. Paulk) addresses his hopes to a prayer card of Black Jesus; Smokey (Ne-Yo), the squadron’s requisite mush-mouthed Southerner, plays that old-time music on a banged-up guitar. Easy (Nate Parker), the smooth-talking flight leader, self-medicates with whiskey, while Lightning (David Oyelowo), the hotshot of the group, keeps himself going on adrenaline, which he variously generates by taking crazy risks against the Germans, using his fists against whites who insult him and pursuing a stammering, not-quite-bilingual courtship of a signorina (Daniela Ruah) in the town near the air base.
Only in the interplay between Lightning and Easy, the film’s major characters, do the bare storytelling conventions of Red Tails coalesce into a semblance of dramatic conflict. Easy—more the leading-man type of the two, with his long, square-jawed face, wavy hair and Clark Gable mustache—is a product of the black bourgeoisie, burdened with the expectations of an overbearing father and duty-bound at all times to follow orders and respect hierarchy. On missions, he is far too cautious for the liking of round-faced, cropped-haired, fireplug-chested Lightning, a young man from a more scuffling background, whose rage against the white-supremacist Army eventually carries over into rage against the accommodating Easy. Stop undermining yourself, Easy tells Lightning. Stop being a walking Atlanta Compromise, Lightning shoots back.
The inclusion of this derisive allusion to Booker T. Washington is perhaps the sole gesture in Red Tails that escapes the constraints of mass-market filmmaking—constraints that were self-imposed in this case, Lucas having financed the picture himself—and one of the very few clues in the movie to the presence of genuine African-Americans behind the camera. Prominent among the crew for Red Tails are writers John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, composer Terence Blanchard (on this occasion working with rather less of a jazz feeling than you would have had from Elmer Bernstein) and director Anthony Hemingway. They may all feel justifiable pride in having brought a significant story from black history onto the screen; but unless you think of The Empire Strikes Back as un film de Irvin Kershner, you will admit that the governing sensibility of Red Tails belongs exclusively to Lucas.
Which brings me back to the question of the use of pop-culture artifacts to ward off fears. What anxieties might Lucas have been trying to allay by subsuming the history of the Tuskegee Airmen within the history of 1940s Hollywood?
Surely he didn’t think that the old-fashioned tone and approach would make the story of Red Tails more accessible to today’s audiences. Say what you will about Lucas, he knows his target demographic—and he’s aware that the people in it have never seen the films that fascinated him in his youth, let alone developed nostalgia for them. The core market now is a generation of video gamers who learned about World War II by playing Call of Duty. They would have felt more comfortable with Red Tails had it used a hand-held, subjective camera to jolt them through a maze of existential crises. Why would Lucas throw up a stylistic barrier against his most likely ticket buyers—especially when he had worked since the early 1990s to make this film (if you believe the prerelease publicity) and had been repeatedly thwarted by studio executives who thought a black epic would be a money-loser?
I think a clue might be found in that prerelease publicity, in which Lucas spoke of Red Tails less as a testament to the African-American struggle than as a marketplace test of the viability of black cinema. Leaving aside the possibility that black cinema might somehow flourish without George Lucas, this emphasis on professional success rather than social transformation points to another anachronism in Red Tails: a post–civil rights mentality (I might almost call it post-Obama) that is as incongruous in a 1940s setting as is the 1940s style in a 2012 release.
Where are the Garveyites in Red Tails? Where are the separatists (other than the worshipper of Black Jesus) and the people who openly questioned why they should fight for white America? Militancy in Red Tails is concentrated in the figure of Lightning, a soft-hearted bedroom integrationist, and although he’s the strongest character by far, he is also the one set up for correction. The plot of Red Tails is a machine for validating the patient bootstrappers—not only Easy but also the senior officers (Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.)—as if to prove that they weren’t Atlanta Compromisers at all, but Colin Powells before their time.
Maybe the anxiety that Lucas wants to ward off—he’s not alone—is a fear that the influence of attractive mass-market images and a prominent class of black professionals has not been enough to end injustice and bitterness. If so, maybe he retrojected a dubious contemporary ideal of postracial America into 1940s Hollywood as his way of intervening in history and assigning victory to the bootstrappers before the major struggle had even begun. In Lucas’s alternative universe, Warner Brothers made its Tuskegee Airmen movie, and so Jim Crow must have collapsed immediately afterward, without the need for a single sit-in, and Barack Obama, his nationality and patriotism evident to all, came into office in an America where adequate employment, housing, healthcare and education were enjoyed by black and white alike.
Of course, it’s a little crazy to imagine that a change in film history could make all this come to pass. As for the project of inserting the appropriate movie into 1944/2012, it’s nothing less than an act of commercial insanity. So give credit to George Lucas for his goodness of heart—even if his delusional symptoms suggest he’s the victim of his own Tuskegee experiment.
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Agnieszka Holland has this much in common with George Lucas: her new film, In Darkness, responds directly to earlier movies. The obvious points of reference are Kanal, her great colleague Andrzej Wajda’s drama about Polish resistance fighters slogging through sewers, and Schindler’s List, the most famous of all movies about desperate Jews and a gentile protector. She alludes; she adapts. In restaging the massacre of the Lvov ghetto, and following a little girl in a bright-blue coat through streets otherwise drained of color, Holland might even be said to rival and rebuke. But for her, a passionate, deeply moral drive to make experience present to the audience, with all the force of its physical texture and in all the confusion of the characters’ feelings, is incomparably more important than either a love of film history or a desire to entertain. To go from Red Tails to In Darkness is to pass from juvenilia to adult cinema, and from wish fulfillment to a vision of reality that is dauntingly anti-sentimental.
As with Red Tails, only more so, the story is true. In Darkness dramatizes the muddled but ultimately successful efforts of a Polish sewer inspector named Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) to shelter more than a dozen Jews through the end of the German occupation, hiding them in a remote side tunnel filled with rats, wastewater and excrement. In Holland’s version, the Jews trapped in this fetid hole are a mixed and fractious lot, with children and the meekly pious jammed together with black-market operators, adulterers, spoiled hysterics and the arrogant rich. They don’t necessarily like or trust one another, and for a very long time, with good reason, they do not like or trust their guardian, knowing that he’s no better than he should be. At the beginning of Holland’s story, Socha is augmenting his sewer worker’s salary by moonlighting as a burglar, so he can buy a few comforts for the wife and young daughter in his one-room garret, and his attitude toward his new line of work is entirely in keeping with this ethic. When he stumbles across some Jews trying to escape the ghetto through the sewers, he does not offer help but extorts money. He treats his charges as a noisy and irritating form of loot, reserves the right to limit the group he’ll shelter (good luck to the others) and is not quiet about the possibility of cutting his risk by turning them all in to the Nazis.
There is no ennobling of Socha, and no grand redemption. He gradually, and often grudgingly, develops emotional bonds with his Jews only in the messy way of someone stuck in a situation that’s bigger and more dangerous than he’d anticipated. Moments of light come to him through conversation with his wife, Wanda (Kinga Preis), a cheerful, fleshy woman who astonishes Socha by remarking that Jesus was a Jew, and from a growing tenderness toward two little girls, who are not exactly blossoming in their new home. If the change in Socha is credible, it’s because every gradation of the man’s low cunning, disrespect for authority, love of earthy pleasures and sheer stubbornness is visible on Wieckiewicz’s putty face, and because the goodness he’s finding possible in himself is emerging amid random, continual violence and betrayal.
Because of his trade, he’s also used to darkness—and darkness, as the title suggests, is what you get in this movie. Photographed by the amazing Jolanta Dylewska, In Darkness is (among other things) a virtuoso exercise in registering images using dim, isolated sources of light, or sometimes apparently none at all. The murk she manifests on the screen takes on a presence of its own, as the visible sign of a hopelessness that is all-enveloping and yet must be pushed away. I cannot promise that you will enjoy the experience. I think you will deeply respect it.
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If you’re looking for a good time at the movies, if a rough one, let me remind you that Gerardo Naranjo’s terrific Miss Bala is now shooting up the theaters. A hit of the 2011 New York Film Festival, this, too, is a quasi-true story, about a poor young woman in Mexico who aspires to compete in a beauty pageant and instead finds herself carrying out the increasingly terrifying orders of a drug lord. Astonishingly rapid, agile, alarming and at times horrifically funny, Miss Bala stars Stephanie Sigman as the contestant, in a performance that seems to bring the quivering nerves right to the surface of her skin, and Noe Hernández as the most intimately threatening criminal now on the screen.