Promoting Red Tails, George Lucas told the New York Times that he wanted to make a Patriotic World War II film like the John Wayne film Flying Leathernecks.
Lucas said, “We made movies like this during the war, and everybody just loved them. I said, ‘There’s no reason why that idealism, that kind of naïveté, can’t still exist.’”
For better or for worse, Lucas (who did not write or direct Red Tails, but served as the executive producer on the film) has accomplished that. Red Tails, which tells the story of the Tuskagee Airman, is an overly idealistic and naïve war film, one that lacks subtlety or any shades of gray. The black protagonists are are heroic, the white higher ups back in Washington who oppose them overly racist and narrow-minded and the Germans they are fighting against all racist and evil as well. (The lead German antagonist has a scar across his face and actually utters the line: “Die, you foolish African!” just so you have no doubts about how evil he is).
The film has the proper sense of grandeur. It is big and loud and the opening sequence features a massive and hectic firefight. All of the CGI dogfights are fairly well-rendered and well-constructed, if slightly underwhelming considering they have the Lucas name attached to them. Planes, trains and battleships are all destroyed and bombs are dropped over cities and all of it is depicted through giant CGI explosions. Like much in the film, these explosions and the dogfights are passable, but not spectacular.
The biggest problem with the fight scenes is the dialogue, which is cartoonishly bad. Every character speaks in generic war cliches and absolutely none of the dialogue feels authentic. Also, for some reason, a lot of the talking is used to overexplain things that are fairly obvious. (Like one scene in which two crew members aboard a bomber have a length discussion about the Red Tails deciding to continue guarding them after a relief crew of fight pilots fails to materialize, something which was establish one minute earlier when the Red Tails themselves had a lengthy discussion deciding whether or not to stay with the bombers.) There is way too much clunky and unnecessary exposition, which at some point makes you wonder just how much the creative forces behind this film are underestimating the intelligence of their audience.
In that same New York Times interview, Lucas claimed he was making this movie for black teenagers. However, I’m not sure how much they will actually get out of the experience. No context is given in the film – we learn nothing about the Tuskagee Airman before or after the time period depicted in the movie and there isn’t really any sense given of their impact on the war as a whole. We don’t know how they came to be or what their lives were like after the war when they went back to America. We see brief touches of the racism they continue to face during the war – both by enemy fighters and by their fellow soldiers, who refuse to let the black officers drink in the officers’ club with them. However, these problems are easily solved – the bad guys are all blown up and the racist officers end up inviting the Red Tails in for cocktails once the see how impressive they are in action.
The characters themselves are all paper thin as well. The two leads, Marty ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (David Oyelowo), are both given a single defining characteristic. Easy is the group leader who, though heroic and wise, has a drinking problem. And Lighting is a hothead who goes for glory over following orders. However, neither one of these character flaws affect their performances very much – Easy’s drinking never really compromises his ability to command and Lightning’s hotdogging usually results in added glory.
The rest of the characters are even less defined than that. Cuba Gooding Jr. is briefly in the film as their pipe-chewing commander. Terrence Howard is the guy arguing with the higher ups in Washington trying to get the Red Tails better assignments. Fans of The Wire will appreciate seeing Tristan Wilds, Michael B. Jordan and Andre Royo in minor roles. (Of the three, Wilds has the meatiest and most interesting role.) Perhaps the most disappointing casting is Bryan Cranston as Colonel William Mortamus, the man trying to shut down the Tuskagee Airman experiment, a one-dimensional character with little screen time played by a man who has shown an incredible ability to add subtlety and nuance to a role.
One other incredibly grating thing about the film is the fact that all of the characters seem to have superhuman eyesight. Lightning spots an Italian woman on a rooftop while flying overhead in his plane and then tracks her down after the mission because he could tell she was cute after briefly glimpsing her from miles overhead. And both bomber pilots and enemy combatants all seem to be able to tell the Red Tails are black, even though you would think you wouldn’t have time to stare closely at the man in the cockpit during a chaotic dogfight.
Even with the unrealistic eyesight, leaden dialogue and generic plot, the film still has its moments. But at the end of the day, it is nothing more than an overly naïve, idealistic and utterly forgettable film. If you are looking for nothing more than a loud, dumb war movie, you may enjoy this one. But if you are actually looking for an accurate depiction of the the men who flew these red tailed airplanes and their role in history, you are better off watching the 1995 HBO film The Tuskagee Airmen.