The Tuskegee Airmen and their distinctively painted airplanes fight Nazis and prejudice from their own government in Italy during World War II in Red Tails, a movie that lists George Lucas as an executive producer.
And, theoretically, who better to be involved in your air combat movie? What is the Star Wars series but dogfights (in space) broken up by sword fights (with lasers)?
The Tuskegee pilots and their crews don’t get a lot of respect — or even particularly good planes — but they have the desire and the willingness to mix it up with the German pilots and help kick some Nazi butt. In particular, pilots Easy (Nate Parker), Lightning (David Oyelowo) and Junior (Tristian Wilds), who would really prefer the nickname “Ray Gun,” are eager to get some combat experience. The military brass don’t want to give the men their due and send them out on missions — in fact, the unit is at risk of being shut down. But Major Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Colonel Jack Tomilson (Lee Tergsen) keep pushing the cause of the Red Tails (as the men are called after painting the tails of their planes) and slowly they gain respect as the fighters who follow through on their mission to protect the bombers and aren’t lured away by German fighters.
As dicey as things can get in the sky, life on the ground isn’t much easier. In addition to fighting the prejudice of their fellow American soldiers, they have some interpersonal issues. Lightning thinks that Easy, the pilot in charge of their group, is hitting the bottle too much. Easy thinks Lightning is a hothead.
Red Tails seems like it should be impossible to screw up. It features the best kind of heroes — plucky underdogs — fighting in some of the most visually exciting kind of combat, namely aerial dogfights. And they’re fighting the best villains — Nazis, who are so boo-hiss hateable that you don’t need to spend any time explaining why they’re such bad guys. On top of that, our heroes are also fighting secondary villains in the form of American racists. How do you go wrong with such a great lineup of good guys and bad guys in such a perfect setting as the good war that was World War II?
Like this: You take all the complexities and subtlety out of the racism issue until it feels like a third-grader’s lesson for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. You make all of the good-guy characters flat, with only the most minor (this one drinks, that one’s a ladies’ man, that one is young) personality traits. You make the villains even less dimensional so that the main Nazi is just a walking sneer. You make all the drama so predictable that even the dogfights seem flat and unexciting.
While watching this movie, I found myself thinking a lot about Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s movie about African-American ground troops in Italy during World War II. That was an imperfect movie — it had a whole lot going on and felt like it could use a good editor. But it brought more to the story than just pat “racism is bad”-type sentiment. It made the men and the various ways they dealt with their situation (risking their lives for a country that didn’t treat them with respect or full citizenship) feel like real people and made us think about them in a way this movie doesn’t. I wanted to not just like this movie but cheer it on, get a good war movie along with a smart take on a less well-known part of history. Instead, Red Tails does neither the Tuskegee Airmen nor the war movie genre proud. C+
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence. Directed by Anthony Hemingway with a screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruber (from a book by John B. Holway), Red Tails is two hours and five minutes long and distributed by Fox.