Eric D. Snider

Red Tails

Movie Review

Red Tails

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: C

Released: January 20, 2012

 

Directed by:

Cast:

With the 1995 HBO film "The Tuskegee Airmen" already well-regarded as the definitive account of the U.S. Army's first squad of black fighter pilots, you have to wonder what purpose is served by "Red Tails," which covers much of the same territory and does so without distinction or flavor. Made by TV director Anthony Hemingway (his big-screen debut) with some help from executive producer George Lucas, "Red Tails" looks more like a TV movie than the TV movie did, and is disappointingly shallow. A true story as inspiring as this one deserves a more insightful treatment.

After a title card reminds us that Negroes were once considered unfit for military service because of supposed inherent character and intellectual weaknesses, "Red Tails" drops us into the action in Italy, 1944. A group of black pilots who trained at Tuskegee, Ala., as an "experiment" to see whether their race could be as skillful as whites at shooting enemies while flying airplanes has been relegated to unimportant missions. They've been given just enough work for the top brass to say they're being used, but not enough to actually matter. In the skies above them, their white counterparts act out a dogfight so comic-book corny that I honestly thought we were seeing a video game or other simulation. (The movie's first line of dialogue is a gleeful exclamation: "Germans! Let's go!" The only thing missing was "Wheee!")

These Tuskegee flyers are portrayed as a generic bunch of war movie stock characters, all represented by nicknames. Easy (Nate Parker) is their strict team leader; he drinks a lot. His best friend, Lightning (David Oyelowo), is a maverick and a hotshot, and the one burdened with the obligatory romance with a local Italian girl (Daniela Ruah). Deacon (Marcus T. Paulik) trusts that "black Jesus" will protect him; Junior (Tristan Wilds) is the enthusiastic new recruit; Smoky (Ne-Yo) plays blues guitar; Joker (Elijah Kelley) jokes; you get the idea.

Their commanding officers, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Maj. Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), do all they can to convince the higher-ups that the team deserves to be trusted with an important mission. When they do accomplish something impressive, racist Col. Mortamus (Bryan Cranston), with his smooth Southern-gentleman accent, tells Bullard, "Eight German fighters or 80 German fighters, it still doesn't change what I think of you and your boys." Later, the Tuskegee Airmen are assigned to escort an all-white group of pilots, who figure, oh great, having black pilots next to us is the same as having nobody next to us. When the Tuskegee boys, their planes' tails painted a distinctive red, prove their worth, the racists immediately change their tune. "I hope we meet up with those Red Tails next time!" says one.

And that's the film in a nutshell. We never get a real sense of the persecution and mistrust these pilots faced, nor do we get a real sense of what it felt like to overcome it. The racism is portrayed in the dullest, simplest terms -- and so is the men's resilience in the face of it. The plodding screenplay (by John Ridley and Boondocks comic creator Aaron McGruder) is so genteel as to be mundane, and Hemingway directs with more reverence than energy. The only time the movie really comes to life is during the dogfight scenes, which are moderately exciting but still riddled with old cliches.

What we're left with is a respectful and well-intentioned historical drama that is neither good enough to seek out nor bad enough to actively avoid. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen ought to be told more often than it is. "Red Tails" is better than nothing -- but "nothing" isn't the other option. That HBO film is still out there, and "Red Tails" doesn't add to it or improve upon it.

Grade: C

Rated PG-13, some mild profanity, some violent images

2 hrs., 5 min.

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This item has 6 comments

  1. Alec says:

    Just a quick correction: The Tuskegee institute, where the team trained is in Alabama, not Tennessee.

  2. Jacob says:

    There are two things about this film (and review) that do not make sense:
    1) Terrance Howard outranks Cuba Gooding, Jr.
    2) The author of "Boondocks" wrote a genteel, plodding screenplay.

    How did this happen?

    Anywhen, enjoy Sundance, Sir E. Snider!

  3. niko says:

    Hey Alec the dude did say Alabama... read the second paragraph.

    "A group of black pilots who trained at Tuskegee, Ala., as an "experiment" to see whether their race could be as skillful as whites at shooting enemies"

  4. Russ says:

    Given Lucas's recent track record, I expected this to be bad, coming from his studio.

    :/ Prejudice confirmed.

  5. danny USMC says:

    as a former Marine, and amateur military history buff, I truly EXPECTED to see something, given that Spielberg was directing it- Red Tails did a diservice to to the story of these fine men. I felt that it was stereotypical, and coming from a white southern background, the obviously DATED characters didn't even FIT what I have Red about the "Red Tails"( 99th pursuit squadron)

    These were the BEST of the BEST when american needed the best- College EDUCATED Black american Officers who had to match or even be better than their BEST OF THE BEST white counterparts.Having proudly served in the capacity as an NCO, I doubt very seriously that officers of this high caliber talked, or carried themselves in such a "shuck and jive" manner. Even the German counterparts were cartoonish, ala "Indiana Jones" baffoons.

    While the CGI action shots were decent, the story seriously was lacking. Sad that a generation of young americans will learn about the sacrifices of these brave fighting men by watching hip hop rappers skewer their memory.......

  6. Doogie says:

    wow, Cuba Gooding Jr. had a headlining role in this? good to know he's made somewhat of a comeback in Hollywood. i thought he was still stuck doing Direct-to-DVD films and kiddie flicks for the rest of his career.

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