The Tuskegee airmen spend much of World War II performing menial tasks that their white brethren would balk at. Their considerable skills as fighter pilots are being squandered on enemy conveys and the like. The have yet to see real combat against a formidable opponent. That would be the ultimate test of their mettle, and they chomping at the bit for a shot at the brass ring. Despite being marginalized, they refuse to take the racist treatment they’ve endured passively. Through resilience and persistence, they finally get their chance. With blood, sweat, and bullets they manage to etch their names in the sky. Long live the Tuskegee Airmen!
George Lucas has supposedly had Red Tails in development for 24 years. In such time, HBO covered the same ground with 1995’s The Tuskegee Airmen. That made for cable gem exhibited much loftier goals than Lucas’ project, and had a considerably smaller budget. Red Tails aspires to be something more along the lines of the adventure serials, war comics, and other such pulp that fueled Lucas’s imagination as a young child. That quality proves to be both the film’s biggest weakness, and ultimately its saving grace.
As with so many other recent films that chronicle the struggle of Black men in the white man’s army, Red Tails often feels packaged as a filmed play or an after school special. The characters, even when displaying crippling flaws, are often shown to be paragons of righteousness and humble nobility. They seem less like flesh and blood characters than embodiments of African-American courage. The very best war films (Platoon and Saving Private Ryan come to mind) allow their characters to be human. They have lives and personalities outside of the literal and figurative wars they fight. Red Tails shows little interest in such nuances, which may offend those who are of the mind that this story should be treated as nothing less than high drama.
In the right hands, such stagey material can be fun, even great, depending on the collection of actors that are chosen. Red Tails is all over the proverbial map in this regard. Terrence Howard plays the same character he has played many times before, though here his overacting and melodramatic line deliveries actually suit the material. Ne-Yo is the Tuskegee Airmen equivalent of Dumb Donald from Fat Albert. With chewing tobacco stuffed in his jowls, he offers supposedly funny country boy commentary. He’s a walking cliché in a movie that already has more than its fair share. David Oyelowo is the resident young hotshot/angry Black man. He has a likability that makes him easy to root for in the action scenes, though he is paper thin otherwise.
The aerial dogfights are the 1940’s equivalent of the space-bound battles in Star Wars. The FX aren’t seamless, but are nonetheless convincing. They convey the Norman Rockwell sensibilities evident elsewhere, appearing to have been painted with a steady hand holding a brush rather than a technician clicking a mouse. The opening titles are wonderfully hokey, appearing as though someone had just opened the cover of an issue of an old DC comics title. While not ground breaking by any means, such moments are like cotton candy. They may not be enough to nourish you, but they are light as feather and taste sweet as they melt on your palette.
The sound FX lack the necessary punch during the action set pieces. The crackle of machine gun fire and sonic booms of downed planes don’t rattle the senses as much as they should. That’s rather curious considering that Lucas is an enthusiast for the technical aspects of filmmaking.
Red Tails pretty much functions on the level that Lucas promised. It’s a corny wartime adventure yarn. It offers a saccharine America where hard work and valor are all that is needed to topple racism. It’s not an unflinching document of war, but an escape into a fantasy world. The film’s shortcomings sometimes interfere with that illusion, but the cornball sentiment will warm the hearts of willing viewers. Lucas may not always be good at visualizing his rather naïve daydreams, but Red Tails has a certain warmth that helps it to overcome its maker’s shortcomings. It does so by the skin of its teeth.
3.25 Out of 5
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