DESPITE its admirable independent spirit and original perspective, this George Lucas project is an otherwise unremarkable by-the-numbers wartime story.
Executive producer George Lucas marries his love of Boy’s Own adventure stories, corny dialogue and dynamic action in Red Tails, an earnest passion project about the heroic exploits of the Tuskegee airmen, the first squadron of black aviators to fight for the US military during the Second World War. Nobly underwriting the £35 million budget himself after every studio apparently feared its subject matter was of limited commercial appeal (covert racism is apparently alive and well in modern day Hollywood, even when it means getting into business with the creator of Star Wars), Lucas stays somewhat true to the Red Tails cause by using his independent clout to tell a story of black civil rights without filtering it through the prism of benevolent white characters (it’s not The Help, mercifully).
With the film written by Three Kings screenwriter John Ridley and Aaron McGruder – the creator of the comic strip Boondocks – and directed by Anthony Hemingway (who earned his stripes directing HBO shows such as The Wire and Treme), Lucas’s fingerprints are only really visible in the broad, pulpy tone adopted to tell the story and the CGI-enhanced dogfights.
That, however, is to the film’s credit and its detriment. The unashamedly old-fashioned approach to narrative ensures that Red Tails is the sort of easy-to-watch film that could have been made at any point in the past 70 years. On the other hand, it’s the sort of easy-to-watch film that could have been made at any point in the past 70 years. No jingoistic war movie cliché is left unused, no generic plot point is deemed too hokey and no character is allowed to have more than one easily definable personality trait at a time. The result is a thoroughly predictable film that, ironically, seems content to operate on autopilot instead of following the lead of its protagonists by daring to soar into uncharted territory.
That said, the film does at least function as useful all-ages primer on the despicable state-sanctioned prejudice that was allowed to flourish in the US military during teh second World War. Red Tails is certainly at its most involving in its early stages when it coolly contextualises the plight of its heroes – the African-American pilots of the Italy-based 332nd Fighter Group.
Having come through the so-called “Tuskegee experiment” – so named for the Alabama town where the Army Air Corps (under pressure from civil rights groups) began training black pilots – this group of desperate-to-prove-themselves airmen find themselves instead running low-level supply missions far behind the front line and a long way from the real action. Their biggest enemy isn’t Germany, it’s the entrenched racism of the military brass who still hold true to the outrageous belief – sanctioned by an official Army “study” from 1925 – that this squadron’s race precludes them from having the courage and intelligence to serve in combat for their country.
Seeking to change this attitude is Col AJ Bullard (Terrence Howard), a Washington-based career soldier who capitalises on a potentially propaganda-worthy news story about the Tuskegee experiment to successfully lobby his outwardly bigoted superiors to give his boys over in Italy – who are training under the watchful command of Cuba Gooding Jr’s pipe-smoking Maj Emmanuel Stone – a chance to finally prove themselves.
Subsequently charged with providing bomber support on a dangerous raid, the men’s collective ability to stay the course of their mission while fighting off the Luftwaffe begins to earn them a little respect, if not exactly the equality they desire.
All of which is woven into a plot revolving around the strained friendship that exists between the squadron’s by-the-book leader “Easy” (Nate Parker) and its maverick daredevil “Lightning” (David Oyelowo). With the former alleviating the pressure of responsibility with an over-fondness for booze, and the latter’s cocky recklessness tempered by falling in love with a local Italian woman, the film ends its commitment to further character development forthwith and proceeds to let these war movie archetypes propel the story towards its predictably rousing ending, albeit with some clunkily telegraphed tragedy artificially raising the stakes.
Along the way the Tuskegee’s dogfights – in their signature crimson-marked P-47 planes – bring Lucas full circle to Star Wars. Having spliced footage from old war movies into the rough cut of his 1977 sci-fi epic to act as a guide for the fledgling effects industry charged with designing all those X-Wing attack sequences, here he has Hemingway use the technology that emerged from that film’s phenomenal success to recreate the Tuskegee’s aerial battles with the same kind of visual gusto. Alas, while it’s occasionally exciting, like everything else in the film, a sense of over-familiarity makes it seem all too pedestrian – and that’s the last thing a movie like this should be.
Red Tails (12A)
Directed by: Anthony Hemingway
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Terrence Howard
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