A 1925 Army War College study concluded that “blacks are mentally inferior to the white man, by nature subservient… cowardly… and therefore unfit for combat.” The men on whose lives Red Tails and Men of Honor are based set out to disprove that, but they need a leader, someone like Cuba Gooding Jr., who if he wants to, can gleefully shout, “Show me the equality,” and get people to take notice. Damned if Cuba doesn’t take the assignment to make those old, white, Army and Navy dudes look like racist fools!
Whether they’re shooting down Nazis in World War II or retrieving a nuclear warhead from the bottom of the ocean floor, these men prove what bravery is. But now it’s time for their toughest fight ever—one against the other in a civil rights Smackdown, military edition.
Red Tails is inspired by the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black fighter squadron in the U.S. military. The 332nd Fighter Group, nicknamed Red Tails because of their planes’ red-painted backsides, flew thousands of missions during World War II, often escorting Allied bombers. It was the Tuskegee Airmen’s bravery that helped to convince President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.
At the beginning of the film, however, the airmen have not yet been given a chance to prove they are qualified for combat. They’re frustrated and bored because they’ve been stuck flying secondhand planes and have only been relegated to ground-attack missions rather than being allowed to take on German fighters. “War is hell,” quips one flyboy, “but what we’re doing is just boring as hell.” Major Emanuelle Stance (Gooding) oversees the ragtag group of pilots, which includes the alcoholic Easy (Nate Parker), brash Lightning (David Oyelowo), and the eager Junior (Tristan Wilds).
Meanwhile in Washington, their colonel (Terrence Howard) is fighting to get them more funding, decent planes and better assignments. His hard work pays off when the 332nd is given the chance to provide air cover for a beach landing. Not only do they prove equal to the task, they manage to blow up a Nazi airbase in the process. Soon they are receiving more and more glorious assignments, each time proving how truly skilled they are as pilots.
Men of Honor is based on the life of Carl Brashear (a baby-faced Gooding ), a sharecropper’s son who, without a high school education, went on to become the Navy’s first black Master Diver. When Carl enlisted after World War II he was told he had a “big future in the Navy.” What he got was a job flipping burgers on a ship in the South Pacific. It is there he first encounters Master Chief Billy Sunday (Robert DeNiro), a Master Diver, and he decides that’s what he wants to do in the Navy. Brashear forces the Navy to let him attend dive school; once there, he has to fight both overwhelming racism and dive instructor Sunday.
Things don’t get any easier when he graduates. Brashear must continually battle the slow-to-change Navy, and he suffers a physical injury that could end his career.
Both films have an Us vs. Them mentality — whether it’s the Americans vs. Nazis, Red Tails vs. Racism, Brashear vs. that same Racism, Brashear vs. Billy Sunday, or Brashear and Sunday vs. “The New Navy” — but neither film has much of an external plot beyond that. And even though racism is prevalent in both films, neither delves very deeply into the history of segregation in the military or, in the case of Men of Honor, how desegregation came to be. The protagonists in both encounter plenty of racism, but the encounters are often simplistic and one-dimensional.
In both films, the black protagonists (mostly) overcome the unfair racial prejudice they encounter. The white bomber pilots the Red Tails are tasked to escort come to trust and rely on the black flyers, even inviting them to a “whites only” officers club and buying them a round of drinks. For Carl Brashear, the other divers who would not originally bunk with him come to respect him for his skill and tenacity. Even Sunday, who is vehemently opposed to the idea of a black Navy diver, comes to respect Carl and becomes an unlikely mentor later in the film.
But Red Tails isn’t really a civil rights movie, it’s an action film, and boy does it have some great action. These young men, boys really, joined the military to be heroes, to kill Krauts, and when they finally get their chance, they hurtle through the skies, taking the audience along for a dizzying ride. Red Tails would easily fit in with the World War II films made in the two decades following the conflict, but with all the modern bells and whistles those films lacked. From its flyboys with their cheesy nicknames like Easy, Lightning and Ray Gun, to its cliché war movie dialogue (“It’s the Germans! Get ’em!”), to its cartoonishly evil Nazi villain, Red Tails has all the hallmarks of an old-fashioned war movie.
Men of Honor is not an action movie so much as a film about tenacity and what it took for one man to break barriers to become a Master Diver. The problem is that this is hard to make visually interesting, especially when it’s really the only plot line in the film. And then there’s the issue of why Carl so badly wants to be a Master Diver. It’s much easier to understand why the Red Tails want to fly. Because their flying is made to look like an awesome video game — shooting down bad guys, glory, thrills and, strangely, in this film at least, near-invincibility. The good guys almost never die. It’s much harder to understand why Carl wants to be a Master Diver. The underwater sequences aren’t nearly as action packed. Usually it’s just Carl under the murky water in a steampunk dive suit, assembling pipes. That can’t really compete with the dazzling blue skies that the Red Tails whizz through shooting down Nazis.
Both films offer unapologetic hero-worship. Neither Carl nor any of Red Tails’ flyboys have any serious flaws. Carl probably works too hard and seems to not spend enough time at home with his wife and son, but that’s never really explored. As for the Red Tails, their problems mostly revolve around being too impetuous or over-eager. Even when they don’t follow orders, things end well, like when they blow up a Nazi air base. Easy drinks a lot, but that never really rings true because it doesn’t actually cause any problems for him. Even when he’s drunk he’s an excellent pilot and squadron leader.
What’s disappointing about Red Tails is that it takes a story of great cultural significance and waters it down to fit the mold of an old fashioned World War II propaganda movie that just happens to star black actors. Still, its flight sequences are damned fun to watch. I can’t say the same about Men of Honor. That film’s not watered down, it’s waterlogged. Soaring high above it is our winner by default, Red Tails.