By Linc Leifeste | January 20, 2012
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Writers: John Ridley, Aaron McGruder
Starring: Terence Howard, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Leslie Odom Jr., Kevin Phillips, Daniela Ruah, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Lars van Riesen
As the end credits were rolling for Red Tails, I overheard a critic sitting directly behind me quietly say, “It took Lucas, what, twenty-three years to get that made and it took us just a bit longer to sit through it.” I know that sounds a touch harsh, but trust me, it’s just a touch harsh. Luckily for me, Harry Knowles was on hand to introduce the film and mentioned Lucas having a love for the short-lived 1950’s EC Comics series Aces High, which focused on WWI fighter aces. Hearing that helped put it in my head to approach the film as though it was an adaptation of such material, which helped see me through the first hour or so of cliched storytelling, hackneyed dialogue and paltry character development. The second hour I was left to my own devices, which mostly consisted of trying to suppress laughter at inappropriate times (which I did better than many in the audience) and viewing imaginary mental videos of directors such as Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood sharing their candid thoughts on the film.
Red Tails relays the film-worthy story of the Tuskegee airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots who, eager to serve their country in World War II after having gone through the experimental Tuskegee air training program, find themselves limited to secondary non-combat roles due to the racism prevalent in the country and military at that time. Thanks to the airmen performing admirably in their limited service as well as the tireless belief and campaigning of their leadership, they soon find themselves landing bigger and more dangerous roles, ultimately providing support on bombing raids into Berlin itself. And it is in those aerial sequences where Red Tails excels, with its daring dogfights and witty between-pilot banter. Luckily there are multiple aerial sequences because once the planes are on the ground this movie quickly crashes and burns.
While the film’s poster gives Terence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. top billing, they’re actually relegated to supporting roles. As with many of the actors in the film, I found it hard to formulate an opinion on their performances considering how little they had to work with. Howard is relegated to stoically delivering motivational speeches and delivering resolute statements while Gooding Jr. is mostly left to express himself by thoughtfully inserting a pipe in his mouth and giving knowing glances. The real stars of the film are fighter pilots Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) and his squad-leader “Easy” (Nate Parker), bunk-mates with a brotherly love-hate relationship. “Lightning” is a free-spirited and ambitious maverick who chafes under Easy’s more conservative leadership. There’s a whole sub-plot about Easy’s alcohol addiction and Lightning’s concerns about how it might be impacting his performance but despite repeatedly showing Easy downing whiskey while on duty, his performance oddly never indicates the whiskey might actually be alcoholic.
The film is crowded with poorly executed subplots such as when Ray “Junior” Gannon has to eject from his plane and is soon captured by German troops and transported to a prison camp filled with soldiers who are in the midst of tunneling out. For the record, yes, I did have momentary images of Hogan’s Heroes running through my head. There’s also the obligatory romance, with Lightning’s spotting of a beautiful Italian woman on a rooftop from his plane leading to him tracking her down and courting her. Soon enough they’re gazing dreamily into each others’ eyes and professing their undying love although neither can speak the language of the other. And just for good measure, there’s even a bar-room brawl thrown in, sparked by the racist taunts of several white officers. But my vote for the most cliched ingredient is the recurring appearance of the evil Nazi fighter pilot (Lars van Riesen), nicknamed “Pretty Boy” by the American pilots, with an unexplained scar running prominently down his cheek.
But the real evil in Red Tails isn’t “Pretty Boy” and his Nazi cohorts, instead it’s the most banal dialogue that I’ve had the displeasure of sitting through in recent memory. While producer George Lucas’ claim that Red Tails is the first ever all-black action movie might be a stretch, it is something that is exceedingly rare and, I think, needed. But much like the Tuskegee airmen themselves, who spent the early part of their military service flying worn-out hand me down planes, it’s a shame that such a vital and important chapter in American history wasn’t given a more suitable vehicle. Lucas has claimed that this film was over twenty years in the making at least partially because the film industry didn’t think there was a market for an all-black action movie. While I don’t doubt there’s truth to that, after seeing the film I am confident quality control issues also played a major role. I can only hope that Red Tails doesn’t help convince the film industry that there’s not a market for all-black action movies because I’m confident there is and I sincerely hope there are more around the corner. I just hope they don’t have George Lucas’ name in the credits.