Runtime: 2 HR, 5 MIN
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Starring: Terrance Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Kevin Phillips, Method Man, Lee Tergesen, Bryan Cranston, and Gerald McRaney
Film Rating: 1 out of 5
As the old adage goes “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” and I’m a strong believer in that saying. In today’s society where the importance of teaching history seems to be at an all time low I think it’s even more important that films pick up of the slack of generating interest in learning about history. I’m not saying that films should be “teaching” history but perhaps they can act as the catalyst that will drive a child or even an adult to pick up a book and learn more about a historical subject they might have not have ever cared about previously. Racism and bigotry is an important issue in American history and telling the story of the first African American military aviators is still relevant today. Unfortunately, for Red Tails the story of the Tuskegee Airmen has already been told in a much better and less cringe inducing film surprisingly called The Tuskegee Airmen.
Red Tails chronicles the fight of the first African American pilots in the US Military against not only the Axis powers over Europe but the bigoted policies and personnel of the US Army. US bombers are suffering terrible losses at the hands of German fighter planes because the US fighters are leaving them unprotected. Meanwhile the pilots of the completely African American 322nd Fighter Group are flying out of date and worn out planes far behind enemy lines. While the pilots make routine flights attacking cargo trucks and trains their commander, Colonel Bullard (Terrance Howard) makes an impassioned case for his pilots to be considered for higher profile missions. The core group of pilots including Marty ‘Easy’ Julian, Joe ‘Lightning’ Little, Ray ‘Junior’ Gannon, Samuel ‘Joker’ George, and Declan ‘Winky’ Hall are frustrated with their limited role in the war and the Army’s bigoted attitudes towards their abilities. Knowing of their frustration Bullard along with his lone ally in Washington, Colonel Tomilson (Lee Tergesen, HBO’s OZ) go up against the bigoted Colonel Mortamus who’s opinion on African Americans are less than positive. By fighting the good fight for racial equality Bullard is able to secure the audience of Major General Luntz (Gerald McRaney, Major Dad) who asks for Bullard’s help protecting the US bombers on their missions into Germany. Now armed with brand new planes the pilots have a specific mission, to protect the bombers at any cost. The 322nd prove themselves in battle and earn the nickname “Red Tails” due to the distinctive paint job of their aircraft and earn the respect of their fellow white aviators.
The film’s main theme is of course overcoming racism but it’s handled in such a buffoonish way it loses its effectiveness. The white American pilots are just racist caricatures, even in the skies over Europe they can’t believe a black guy could be flying a plane. Then a switch is flipped and the white pilots embrace the Red Tails as brothers and then it’s time for a round of “lets make jokes about the differences between black and white people.” The Germans fair no better, one German pilot begins a vendetta against the Red Tails because they’re black and he has some of the films most on the nose dialogue… “Die African, die!” Not only are the Germans pissed that the Americans are fighting them in the war but they’re doubly pissed that the Americans are sending black pilots up against them. The animosity is ever so clear when they repeatedly lock eyes with each other as their planes fly around at hundreds of miles per hour.
To put it mildly Red Tails is a mess. As soon as the generic opening credits began Red Tails had a distinct made-for-TV vibe that it was never able to shake off. The writing is terrible, it’s filled with clichéd dialogue that makes Top Gun and Pearl Harbor sound like Academy Award winning scripts. The dialogue during the dogfights sounds like it’s out of the Death Star attack in Star Wars but without the Red 6 pilot (the fat pilot to you non geeks). There’s also numerous reference to ‘Black Jesus’ which just seemed too out of place and comical for a war film. I don’t fancy myself a ‘Black Jesus’ expert but I’m not sure when ‘Black Jesus’ started making appearances in African American culture or if he was a constant fixture of conversation during dogfights as he appears to be in Red Tails. In addition to the crummy dialogue the actual plot doesn’t do the film any favors either. Every one dimensional caricature is represented from the alcoholic squadron leader, the talented risk taking hot head, the rookie, the wise cracker, plus many more. Like a paint by numbers war film you can easily predict the outcome of every single character right down to who lives and who dies. There’s also the side plot of the pilot who falls in love with the local Italian girl and their “magical” romance. It feels out of place not because it’s an interracial romance in the 1940′s but because we’re telling the story of the Tuskegge Airmen. This plot line also falls into the “I bet I know how that’s going to end” category I mentioned earlier; there’s not too many options here… (1) They go back to America and live for the next 20+ years in the racially divided US where interracial relationships were ‘frowned upon” to put it mildly. (2) They live in Italy. (3) One or both of them die. It won’t take you too many guesses to figure it out. Also pigeonholed into the film is a plot line straight out of The Great Escape. It just adds to the film’s lack of focus, bloated runtime, and inconceivability.
One of my biggest historical film bugaboos is also violated; most of the characters, specifically most of Red Tail pilots behave as though they were transported back in time from 2011 to fly airplanes against the Germans. For example, before the pilots embark on a dangerous mission they all “huddle up” and ‘Easy’ leads them in a rousing pre-game chant that would make the Baltimore Raven’s Ray Lewis proud. Subtlety is also not one of Red Tails strong suits, the audience is repeatedly hit over the head with film’s unclear message; black pilots (people) are better than or equal to white pilots (people). The white pilots continue to disobey orders to protect the bombers but the African American pilots hold their “ground” even though it was partially because some of the black pilots disobeyed orders that helped them get their new assignment. Seems a bit strange doesn’t it? None of the actors portraying the pilots acted seriously enough to be convincing in their roles. The real life Tuskegee Airmen had to act and fly better than their white counterparts just to be given a chance. This isn’t so much a knock against the actors as it is against the writers of Red Tails who put the weight of a poorly written film on the shoulders of an inexperienced cast. Only the seasoned actors, namely Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bryan Cranston, Lee Tergesen, and Gerald McRaney, seem able to work past the script deficiencies plus not act like they’re reading their lines off of a cue card behind the camera. With that said none of those actors aside from Terrence Howard have any depth of character. They’re all one dimensional roles that could be replaced with an well dressed piece of cardboard.
What’s even stranger about the cast of Red Tails is that both Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. have played Tuskegee Airmen before and with better results. Terrance Howard played a Tuskegee Airmen accused of murdering a white officer in the Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell stinker Hart’s War and Cuba Gooding Jr. made one of his earlier film appearances in the 1995 HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen with Lawrence Fishburne. Cuba should give a quarter of his pay for Red Tails to his tobacco pipe who acted as his surrogate parrot. From the pipe’s first appearance in the film it is constantly stealing Cuba’s dramatic thunder and it also appears that Cuba is constantly trying to perform a sex act on the pipe. The Cuba-Pipe relationship is actually pretty distracting because he makes so many strange and inappropriate faces that add a comical quality to a supposed serious situation.
One of the only reasons to see Red Tails is for the special effects. Much like James Cameron’s Titanic the story may be shit but the effects are pretty decent throughout. I doubt the dogfights in Red Tails have much in common with reality but they’re fun to look at and come complete with a Top Gun ”I’ll hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by” moment that I’m sure was used throughout the second World War. What’s strange is that there are so many great looking dog fight sequences while other moments look like absolute shit. The use of CGI matte shots look bad plus there are a few shot that look like the entire cast is standing on or in front of a green screen. At the end of the film all the pilots are standing on a runway but instead of feeling patriotic I was thinking if they borrowed the CGI software from a SYFY TV Movie division because they ran out of money.
Seasoned TV director Anthony Hemingway makes his feature film debut with Red Tails. I don’t know how much blame can be firmly placed on his direction of the film. The script comes courtesy of John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. I’m actually surprised at how poor the script was considering John Ridley has done some good work mainly on U-Turn and Three Kings while Aaron McGruder work on The Boondocks is some of the best subversive comedy on television today. I’d really like to pinpoint where the film went wrong and my best bet is that it started with producer George Lucas. Months before Red Tails was released it was announced that Lucas was filming reshoots due to Anthony Hemingway not being available marking the first time Lucas had directed a non-Star Wars film since American Graffiti in 1973. In the weeks before the release of Red Tails George Lucas was on the talk show circuit claiming that he’d been trying to get a film about the Tuskegee Airmen made for over twenty years but Hollywood was too racist to finance a film about African Americans overcoming racial discrimination without any major white stars so he put up the funding for the film himself. That’s a very interesting story Mr. Lucas came up with but it’s very odd how HBO made their own film about the Tuskegee Airmen and there have been several other films about African American soldiers fighting to overcome racism such as Glory and A Soldier Story. I get the feeling that Lucas was preying on people’s fears a bit by essentially saying that if you don’t go see Red Tails you’re a racist. I might be a little overly paranoid but the guy isn’t above telling boldfaced lies to his fans (i.e. “The original cuts of the Star Wars Trilogy are lost”).
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is an interesting and poignant point in American history. Unfortunately Red Tails is a terrible vehicle to tell the story of these men’s struggles and accomplishments. It’s filled with terrible clichéd dialogue, a story that lacks focus, goes on far too long, and actors that aren’t capable of elevating above the poor script The special effects are the only real positive aspect of the film and there are even times that fails to deliver the goods. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is certainly film worthy, we can just hope it doesn’t take almost another twenty years for it to get a worthy film treatment.
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