The Movie That Could Have... And Didn’t
While we’re on the subject of The Movies, I can’t shake a need to weigh in on a film that should have been topical as well as action-packed, a movie that had all the ingredients for passion, drama, and a strong social message, not to mention eye-candy CGI (the one thing it managed to get right, which is all too often the case at the Cineplex).
The name of the film? "Red Tails." Heard of it? Maybe you have, maybe not. Seen it? Most likely, no. The film was released not quite six weeks ago and has already vanished with nary a trace. (One suspects a similar fate awaits the film’s inevitable DVD and On Demand releases.)
"Red Tails" is about a group of World War II fighter pilots who grapple with the Germans in the skies over Europe. Trains and ships are demolished in the movie by one daring airman, the wild card of the pack, a guy who (naturally) gets in trouble on a regular basis for disobeying or disrespecting superior officers who don’t have a tenth of his talent.
The pilots earned their nickname because of the red-painted tail sections of their aircraft--once they got new, state of the art fighter planes, that is, rather than creaky old hand-me-downs. These were not the men of the so-called "Black Sheep Squadron," and they weren’t relegated to second-banana status in the war for behavioral problems; they were simply dismissed as not being smart or brave or quick enough to make good use of new planes even if they got some. That assumption had no basis in fact, but it was firmly rooted in many minds both inside and outside of the military because the pilots in question were the Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of African Americans.
I hardly need to describe the plot to you because you practically know it by heart. It’s the stuff of movies from all genres, not just war flicks: Underdogs that no one believes in get half a chance to show what they can do, and they accomplish miracles:
This could have been an important film, but poor dialogue, poor pacing, poor direction, and lousy acting derailed it. (I’m hardly alone in this assessment; check out EDGE critic Jake Mulligan’s review.)
But why did this movie crash and burn? Some have charged that the subject matter (the triumph of Black soldiers facing down White prejudice in a time of war and serving their country in exemplary fashion despite the aspersions it seemed eager to cast upon them) makes the movie unmarketable. After all, George Lucas tried since the 1990s to get the film made. George Lucas! If he can’t get any movie he damn well pleases made in short order, then you get the idea that doubts about the project do, indeed, run deep. Lucas eventually financed the movie himself. He won’t be seeing a profit for his trouble, but sometimes that’s what it means to undertake a labor of love.
It’s just a shame that labor of love this film will remain, because it could have been a classic and a blockbuster. Regrettably, passion, pull, and money aren’t enough to make for a good movie. You also need a well-written script, and the screenplay for "Red Tails" reads like a punch list of stereotypes in need of a take-down. It’s all so pat and tidy that when you’re not rolling your eyes you’re laughing out loud, and not because you’re identifying with the heroes.
The biggest pity, from this gay critic’s point of view, is that this film is the perfect metaphor, at the perfect moment in time, to underscore the huge victory that is the final repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" last fall. Even now, most of the Republican contenders for this year’s presidential election have indicated that they want to reinstate DADT (except for Mitt Romney, who belatedly, and under the radar, said he would not seek to reimpose the anti-gay ban; but then again, this is Mitt Romney we are talking about, so who knows what his beliefs are now as opposed to twelve minutes ago?). Indeed, at a debate last fall, Rick Santorum, responding to a gay soldier’s query on this issue, made the insane leap of logic that for gay soldiers to stop lying about being gay is tantamount to gay soldiers having gay sex in uniform--as if being gay was the same thing as having gay sex.
How about it, y’all? Is a celibate heterosexual still a heterosexual? How about a heterosexual in the military, who, like gays in uniform, has to answer to the Uniform Code of Conduct? Santorum would never make these foolish, asinine assertions about straight soldiers because the crowd he’s trying to impress--you know, the ones who booed the gay soldier who asked the question, via video, of the debate participants--fails to make that differentiation. To them, gay people are gay sex, and their prurient imaginations never cease providing lurid, if fictitious, scenarios to illustrate their twisted ideas about us.
If we’ve seen progress in the last seventy years, it’s in the way rhetoric is wielded against minorities. In "Red Tails," a racist general comes right out and says what’s on his mind; he states that it doesn’t matter to him how much of a contribution Black airmen make to the Allies’ eventual victory, he’s still going to hate and denigrate African Americans as a whole... which is to say, promote claims about their intelligence, patriotism, and ability that he himself knows are not only lies, but also damned lies.
Today, the target has changed (gays instead of Blacks), but the damned lies are the same, and they are bolstered by an even more vicious kind of falsehood: That those who promote them are not homophobic, claim so patently and completely false as to be beyond laughter, beyond outrage... even beyond credence, one hopes, to the 75 percent of Americans who wanted DADT gone well before Congress took action and repealed the law, a cruel and biased piece of legislation in its own right.
"Red Tails" could have reverberated with the kind of history that helps light our way today. That it fell with a thud instead of flying high is not simply a matter of Hollywood players dealing in profit and loss; it’s a missed opportunity to help make difference in a nation where the war continues for universal application of the simple human dignities that our legal framework theoretically provides to all citizens as their birthright.
But DADT is only one front on the modern civil rights battleground. Perhaps we can hope that Rob Reiner’s upcoming movie about Proposition 8 will do for marriage equality (which, again, the GOP presidential hopefuls would like to erase on a national scale, this time through a Constitutional amendment) what "Red Tails" should have done for the right of GLBT patriots to serve and defend their country.