By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
Laurence Fishburne plays African-American pilot Hannibal Lee, a character we follow through training and into the fight in the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first flying unit for all-black pilots during WWII. He and his comrades fight Germans in the sky and racism at home, proving themselves as one of the best air-combat units in the Army.
Once again proving that Red Tails was an inessential waste of our time, The Tuskegee Airmen was an HBO movie from sixteen years ago that covered the same territory, and better in just about every way. In fact, some of the scenes of Red Tails are copied wholesale from this film, but not used as effectively.
Fishburne carries his own as the lead, and is supported strongly by Andre Braugher, Malcom-Jamal Warner, and Cuba Gooding Jr. All manage to craft solid characters who you can actually care about.
One of Red Tails’ greatest weaknesses was that all non-black characters were treated as 2-dimensional generic “racists”. While The Tuskegee Airmen does have racist characters, the film treats them as people as well.
Cheap racism is cheap…
One character in particular; a pilot is initially in disbelief that he is being escorted by black pilots. Instead of simply shrugging this off however, his character is given a genuine arc. He is a caring officer who is absolutely dedicated to the protection of his flight crew. Because of this he gradually comes to trust the abilities of the Airmen, and is eventually convinced that they were not only worthy pilots, but specifically requests them to protect him and his men.
Of course being a TV movie, the film is far lower budget than Red Tails, and the filmmakers employed air combat stock footage in the flying scenes to substitute for special effects. This feels no less effective than CGI, and in fact it is more believable, because what you’re watching is really happening.
Most importantly, The Tuskegee Airmen effectively communicates history while crafting a dynamic film that is entertaining to watch.
Taking notes George?
What keeps The Tuskegee Airmen from absolute perfection is that some moments in the film try a little too hard to feel important. There are scenes where the airplanes slowly take off and bombastic music swells, and characters gaze longingly into the sky, with tears in their eyes. This is the kind of bombast that would normally ruin a movie.
Luckily, Bombastic is my last name…
(well not really, but it sounded like a decent joke at the time)
Luckily a few ham-fisted moments are easily forgotten, as the rest of the movie easily overcomes this handicap with the kind of heart and emotion that shines through.
Essential viewing for history buffs, and others who feel cheated by Red Tails.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever there is a slow flying montage.
Drink Generously: through any stirring motivational speech
Drink a Shot: for each German plane shot down