Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Story that Needs to Be Told

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood produced scores of films based on events from the Second World War. Some of them were generally well-made, and some weren’t. Some had high production values, and some didn’t. Some had great dialogue, and some didn’t. What many of them had in common is that they were based on stories that needed to be told.

We haven’t seen as many films lately about the global conflict that shaped the Greatest Generation. But a new release presents a World War II story that is long overdue for big-budget treatment.

Red Tails is based on the experiences of the first African Americans to fly in combat as fighter pilots for the United States. The film dramatizes their struggle to obtain combat experience in the face of fierce institutional resistance (a major theme of the story), the discrimination they faced (even in uniform), and the extraordinary success that they achieved in battle. Along the way, the film occasionally glimpses beneath the surface to provide genuine insights into the world of this valiant group of heroes.

Among other things, the film reminds us that, even before enlisting, these young men were already on a path to success. The Army Air Corps initially only accepted cadets who had completed at least two years of college. Author J. Todd Moye* quotes pilot Roscoe C. Brown Jr. has having observed that the Tuskegee Airmen were “probably the most talented group of African American men ever brought together in one place.” This reality is reflected in when the film’s protagonists talk about their backgrounds: Some come from medical families. One is driven to alcoholism by the pressure to please his father, a distinguished judge. According to Moye, nearly one thousand young men with similar backgrounds and similar expectations graduated from Tuskegee Army Flying School between 1941 and 1945.

The film also reminds us that these men had a keen awareness of being part of something much larger than themselves, in more ways than one. Certainly, they were aware of being part of the nation’s struggle against the Axis powers. But they were also aware of being part of what the Pittsburgh Courier described as the “Double V Campaign” – a quest for victory against racism abroad and at home. When one of the film’s characters accuses another of being his “own damned Atlanta Compromise,” it’s a signal that these men possessed a keen social consciousness. They were the leading edge of a movement to expand opportunities for people of color throughout American society. They yearned for combat experience not just for its own sake, but as an opportunity to prove what they really shouldn’t have had to prove – that African Americans are just as competent, courageous, and patriotic as any other Americans.

*Moye, Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, 2010.