Red Tails (2012)
You’d think a big name like George Lucas would not have a problem getting a movie made. Lucas has been trying to get a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen made since the 1980s, but he says no studio would bite, concerned that American audiences would not be interested in a movie with an all-black cast. So Lucas just paid for the movie himself, forking over $50 million of his own money a.k.a. July’s paycheck from Star Wars toys, a.k.a. what Lucas just had in his pockets at the time. Even though only credited as an executive producer, it’s hard not to feel the Lucas imprint all over Red Tails. The emphasis is on the high-flying aerial combat, ladled heavily with CGI special effects work, rather than on a credible story and characters that we care about. Simply out, the Tuskegee Airmen deserve a better movie than this.
In 1944, the Tuskegee Airmen have been kept on the ground for most of the war. However, the bomber pilots need more protection. It seems that white pilots meant to provide protection of the bombers will easily get distracted, chasing after German fighter planes for a taste of glory. Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) have been notified that their unit of black pilots will finally get their shot. Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) leads the squad, followed by Joe “Lightening” Little (David Oyelowo) and Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds). They are to escort the bombers and stick to the bombers; the mission is paramount. The unit paints the tails of their planes a bright crimson to stand out from the pack. The Tuskegee Airmen keep to their creed, ensuring the bombers carry out their missions, and proving themselves every bit as courageous as capable as white servicemen.
It’s like somebody transplanted a 1950s war film to present day but left every single hoary cliché imaginable. Just because African-American actors get to play the clichés doesn’t mean we’ve made progress. The Tuskegee Airmen are a historical account with enough real-life intrigue; Lucas and company didn’t need to create a fictional tale to illustrate their heroic deeds. The characters are all resoundingly one-note; the troubled leader with a drinking problem, the hotshot who doesn’t follow orders, the wisecracking pilot with a firm religious belief in “black Jesus,” the young guy trying to prove himself, and the guy who gets married and just wants to get back to his girl (guess what happens to him?). Let’s stop and analyze that plot point. Lightening first discovers his Italian beauty (NCIS: LA’s Daniela Ruah) waving while he’s zooming by in an airplane. Naturally he can find her home. After a series of strolls, Lightening asks her to be his wife, and eventually she accepts after some deliberation. Neither of them seems to find this interracial marriage concept a big deal, but in the 1940s, when the Army was still segregated and miscegenation was still illegal in certain states until 1967, you better believe it would be a big deal. Italy was no prejudice-free haven of tolerance, especially under Mussolini’s rule. And by the way, the portrayal of Italy in this movie looks like the war hasn’t even touched the land, physically and mentally. All those happy Italians just walking around smiling. And then there’s the white officers club where one of the black pilots visits and punches a guy after he calls him the N-word. In reality, this guy would have been beaten to an inch of his life. It’s even more bizarre then that, just after a month of flying missions, this say officer’s club greets the black pilots with open arms, fighting to by the guys rounds of drinks. Red Tails, at times, seems to exist in a different universe.
This has got to be the most boring part of a story you could tell about the Tuskegee Airmen. We watch the pilots escort the bombers and stick with the mission. While an interesting historical footnote, that’s about it. The story before the missions and after the missions is infinitely more interesting. I’d much rather see these brave heroes have to go back to a bitterly racist country, be declared honored men of valor by the government and then told they don’t deserve equal rights in the same breath. There’s so much more inherent drama in the conflict of going home to a segregationist country. Likewise, the Army was only integrated late into the war, meaning that African-American soldiers could not enter combat until 1944. Surely the journey these men took to enter the armed services is more compelling, and their experiences must have been even harder, battling the prejudices of their fellow brothers in arms. The early scenes in the film where Col. Bullard is fighting for respect and to get his men an actual mission, butting heads with brass who feel African-American soldiers are inferior, is far more gripping than anything that goes on in the air. The actual war part of this story is the least interesting part. If Lucas and company were so hell-bent on framing their story this way, they should have taken a cue from 1990’s Memphis Belle and stuck to a single mission being the majority of the plot. That would have kept the realism of the situation, ratcheted up suspense, and been a more natural way to get to know our characters.
While only thoroughly mediocre, Red Tails can have some pretty awful moments. The white bomber pilots provide, for lack of a better phrase, color commentary on the plot. Their dialogue is so on-the-nose and transparent, meant to lead an audience into some stilted realization that African-Americans are, gosh, not that different. The dialogue starts off with stuff like, “What? A colored man?! We’re done for,” then goes to, “Hey, these boys might actually be okay. I hope them Red Tails fly with us next time,” and then the movie might as well end on, “Wow, my altogether uninformed prejudices have been completely upended. I’m sorry I ever relied on such outdated notions of race that were completely ignorant. My paradigm has shifted and I’m going to look at people not as black or white anymore, but as people.” It’s so annoying and artificial. The dialogue is mostly cornball but the line that takes the cornball cake is after Lightening attacks a German munitions train, he shouts, “How you like that, Mr. Hitler?!” Really? “Mr. Hitler?” You’d think two African-American screenwriters (John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder) would have eschewed any phrases that could be racially loaded. Speaking of Germans, the movie has one German ace that keep reappearing again and again. Just so we understand that all those cockpit shots of ONE GERMAN are the same guy, the movie gives him a hideous scar along the side of his face. Being a scary scarred German fighter isn’t enough to convince us this man is a villain, so the movie also has him spout some pretty ludicrous racist dialogue, even for someone who may have believed wholeheartedly in the principles of an Aryan race. “Die you foolish, African,” he shouts at one point. Maybe he’s still steamed over that whole Jesse Owens thing.
But the dumbest moment in a movie that will tax a minimal amount of brain cells is what happens to Junior after his plane goes down. He’s caught behind enemy lines and is thrown into a prisoner of war camp. But what luck, because it just so happens that these prisoners are planning an escape that very night (“At least they won’t see you at night,” one of the guys tells Junior). They’ve dug a tunnel beneath their barracks and Junior agrees to go first to be the lookout. He climbs out of the exit hole right in front of a forest clearing. When the next one in line pops out, however, a German guard has spotted them and turned his weapon on the American. Junior hops from behind a tree, waves his arms wildly to distract, and then runs off into the woods. Inexplicably, this is where the storyline concludes. You’re telling me that a German soldier with a gun isn’t going to give chase into the woods? These guys have the upper hand, plenty of armed men and dogs to track escaped prisoners. The rest of the American prisoners make it out to alive miraculously and one of the guys gives Junior’s dog tags to his unit. How did these prisoners, all escaping after the jig was up, get past everyone? And yet Junior does indeed live too and shows up just in time, in literally the last thirty seconds of the movie, to cut short everyone feeling sad about fallen soldiers. It’s like an angel just dropped him out of the sky. Junior’s escape and perilous journey back to American forces seems like a pretty good story worth telling. It has to be fraught with danger and thrills, but to just hastily end his storyline and magically zap him back to base isn’t just criminally lazy, it’s insulting.
The saving grace of Red Tails is its coterie of talented actors, doing the best they can with the wobbly material. This is a movie designed for the most mainstream of audiences, not for anybody who knows a whiff of history. The characters are one-note, the story is driven by every cliché imaginable, and the reality of the time period feels oddly glossed over at too many points, settling for safe rah-rah movie heroics. The aerial combat sequences can be exciting but they come across as weightless, with all the emotional investment of watching a video game. Credit Lucas giving this movie a decent-sized budget to pull off the special effects and involved combat sequences, but that money would have been better spent on a good script, not one just dusted off from the World War II era and the race of the characters altered. I find this kind of pandering mush to be insulting, especially the fact that the audience is supposed to feel grateful that black soldiers are finally getting the spotlight no matter the quality of film. The choice of “pandering mush” or nothing is a false choice. If giving black characters the chance to run through all the tired, hoary war clichés that went out of style decades ago is progress, then I shed a tear for this country.
Nate’s Grade: C