The War at Home and Abroad, by Jack Fleischer
Red Tails is a whiz-bang action film about the Tuskegee airmen, set amidst their work in World War II. It is directed by Anthony Hemingway and stars actors Nate Parker and David Oyelowo. I’m being specific about all this because most of this flick’s hubbub surrounds producer George Lucas. Add to that, one of the posters I saw is almost exclusively dominated by the half-heads of Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. Yes, they’re in this movie, but they’re small potatoes — they don’t fly, cry or die in this war flick.
This movie focuses in on the Tuskegee Airmen’s struggle to fight in World War II’s forward areas and thereby gain equal stature with their fellow fighters. In particular we follow pilots “Easy” (Parker) and “Lightning” (Oyelowo) and the men they serve with. There are personal conflicts, dogfights, racial tensions, dogfights, daring escapes, and, well, you guessed it.
Visually thrilling, Red Tails offers everything you can imagine would come from the producer of Star Wars. As a person who knows little about aviation or its intricacies the action is clear and exciting. Although director Hemingway came from television (The Wire, Fringe), he understands how to bring the audience into these aerial battles.
Parker and Oyelowo both hand in serviceable performances, as does the rest of the cast, which includes Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Leslie Odom Jr., Daniela Ruah, Ne-Yo, and of course Cuba and Howard.
The movie falls short in that there is no complexity. Filled with World War II movie tropes and cliché’s it even has a pilot named “Joker” and an evil Nazi pilot with an ugly scar across his snooty Aryan face. I suppose if this film had been made fifty years ago, it would have established all of these clichés. It’s not a bad film, but in the world of today it’s hard to imagine an audience not wanting a little more meat on the bone.
The dialogue is clunky, and feels a little “plug and play.” The characters say what’s on their mind, and all intentions are spelled out with face slapping subtlety. Perhaps it’s no longer possible to surprise with a World War II film, but I feel like this movie doesn’t even try to challenge its audience. It’s predictable. It’s what you’d expect. It’s the pretty girl with no personality.
For all the good that can come from a film about the often forgotten contributions of African American during World War II, this movie feels like a cop out. Instead of being a retread of the World War II genre, it would be great to see this film establish new ideas of what these men are, and what they had to do for equality.
Red Tails is a movie that is getting most of its attention for the wrong reasons. George Lucas has been stumping hard, talking about the years that went into getting mainstream Hollywood interested in making a movie about these African American pioneers. He’s even talked of never making another big budget Hollywood movie.
For the sake of everything this film stands for, this movie needs to stand apart from its production team. Regardless of its producer, this is now a permanent monument commemorating the work and lives of the Tuskegee airmen. Lucas himself has claimed that he has ideas for sequels and prequels that would have made for even better movies. He’s talked about showing how these men fought for, and then returned to, a country that didn’t see them as equals. That’s extremely compelling stuff, and I can’t understand why Lucas would spend 20 years to make a movie that isn’t as good as the other movies he now says he wants to make.
In the end, this movie is exciting to watch, but it’s otherwise exceedingly bland. Red Tails simply doesn’t do justice to its source material.