Against the great odds of pervasive bigotry, a group of black pilots from the Tuskegee training program flew in World War II, shooting down German planes, bombing trains and trucks and even taking out a destroyer. They sacrificed for their country during an era when they were not allowed in officer’s clubs. Can’t you taste the cinematic potential? This is exactly the kind of story of glory-glory-hallelujah bravery and perseverance you’d expect from a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg.
Alas, it was George Lucas who became captivated by the Tuskegee Airmen and has, after many years as devoted producer, managed to turn their story into a feature film that falls much closer to the goofy Hogan’s Heroes in the spectrum of World War II-focused productions than Saving Private Ryan. He didn’t direct – that task fell to a young black director named Anthony Hemingway, whose credits include episodes of The Wire and Treme – but the gee whiz stamp of Lucas is all over Red Tails. Tons of flying action to send small boys into paroxysms of joy, dialogue of almost exquisite hamminess, a tale of good and evil and really, not much more. There are no subtle moments in this production.
Here’s what happens the first time the trusty Red Tails (the tails of their planes are painted bright red) show up to escort a group of American bombers in a mission:
Pilot #1, peering out the cockpit window, spotting cute Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), the baby-faced pilot dipping his wings at him. He observes that Ray is “colored.” “What the hell are we going to do?” he asks Pilot #2. Despite the best efforts of Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (a pioneer in special effects, mind you), this conversation, and every other allegedly sky bound exchange in Red Tails, looks like it’s taking place three feet off the ground on a green-screened set.
“I don’t think our fighter escort is going to be much help this trip,” Pilot #2 responds grimly, as if the war were suddenly all but lost.
The Red Tails, including squadron leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and his roommate and best buddy, Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo, who has the look of a man who will effortlessly cast off this lame movie and move gracefully into better ones, including, Spielberg’s Lincoln, slated for release next Christmas), selflessly guide the bombers safely along on their perilous journey, even taking out a couple of Nazi planes along the way. By this point in the movie, it’s easy to be fond of all of them; they’re a pleasant bunch, although they don’t deviate even the slightest bit from the old fashioned war movie stereotypes: troubled drunk with a chip on his shoulder, hotshot, goofy guy, obvious martyr, etc. After the bombing mission, farewells are then exchanged in the sky and the Red Tails, aka the 332 Fighter Group, head back to their home base on Italy’s Adriatic Coast. They have shown the idiotic Pilots #1 and 2 how it is done. They have driven Mr. and Mr. Daisy and stood by courteously while bombs were dropped.
“We didn’t lose a single plane. Wow, that’s a first!” says Pilot #1.
“I hope we meet up with those Red Tails next time!” chimes in Pilot #2.
In its falsity and clumsy exposition, Red Tails’s dialogue has all the grace of a margarine commercial, and for much of the movie, Easy, Lightning, Junior and their other colleagues, including Joker (Elijah Kelley) and Smokey (R&B star Ne-Yo), seem like products being pitched to tried and true butter lovers. Every doubter is persuaded eventually, of course, because this is a feel-good movie about overcoming racism. Not the hissing Nazis though; they just get shot down. War is not hell in Red Tails. It’s more like a chance to go all Top Gun, or fall in love (there’s an Italian girl who speaks no English, but has mastered the language of amore) or earn the respect of your fellow pilots, black and white alike. The damage is minimal. Even when someone is injured or dies on screen, it seems gentle, a trickle of blood, some fluttering eyelids and murmurs of “I’m getting dizzy” or “help me black Jesus.”
With its aw shucks, it all works out in the end approach to race relations, Red Tails would seem likely to infuriate as many people as The Help did, except for a key distinction. This isn’t a movie about white people helping black people achieve their potential. The white members of the military brass (particularly the general played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) do everything they can to make it harder for the 332nd Fighter Group to succeed, including giving them the most decrepit planes they can find. Not only do the Tuskegee Airmen not have anyone like The Help’s Skeeter speaking for them, even when they get praise, it’s grudging and laughably insensitive. “I guess there’s a lot more to you coloreds than I thought,” says a white POW at Stalag 18 to one of the Tuskegee Airman who has the misfortune to land behind enemy lines and then proves handy to an all-too easily executed Great Escape-style operation.
Instead the Red Tails have two proud black men on their sides, their commanding officers, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard). (Both actors have some Tuskegee experience under their belts, Gooding Jr. was in HBO’s 1995 movie The Tuskegee Airmen and Howard played a Tuskegee Airman held captive in a German POW camp in Hart’s War. Next time the topic of limited roles for black actors in Hollywood films come up, consider that coincidence; it’s a small world without many parts.) The Colonel in particular will bristle at a racist superior or give an inspirational speech at the drop of a hat. The Major is usually too busy clenching his pipe between his teeth to say much of anything, but Gooding has mastered gazing up into the sky with a concerned look. He’s an Oscar winner, by the way, and Howard an Oscar nominee (Hustle & Flow) just in case you forgot, which the cheesiness of Red Tails could very easily make you do. Such rich history, such poor execution. Lucas has once again — he does this just every time he releases anything new — threatened to retire from making big movies. Why can’t he just retire from making bad movies?
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