Red Tails is a 23 years in the making passion project from executive producer George Lucas that depicts the exploits of a group of Tuskegee Airmen in the European theater of World War II. It is a very abridged history of the group, as the film begins with the Airmen fully trained and stationed in mainland Italy. As far as I can tell, the characters in the film are only loosely based on historical persons, but we are assured the main action of the film is inspired by true events.
The Airmen in the film are commanded by Col. AJ Bullard (Terrance Howard) and Major Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), but the real stars are the four main Airmen we follow, Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley), Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) and their efforts during the war. Plot-wise, the film manages to hit almost all of the major World War II film clichés, including the captain struggling from alcoholism, the reckless cowboy looking for a fight, and the unseasoned newbie looking for acceptance. One would think that the first mainstream film about these heroic soldiers would have more to explore, but alas, the only insight into the Tuskegee struggle comes from some ignorant remarks made by white officers and a cocky Nazi ace. We can only assume from what we have learned in our high school history classes that the road to becoming a Tuskegee Airman was not an easy one.
While the director of Red Tails is credited as Anthony Hemingway, this feels very much like a George Lucas film. Let’s focus on the upside of this fact first, since I continue to grow weary of Lucas-bashing. Remember those dogfighting scenes in Star Wars that so effortlessly brought the limits of outer space to our own skies? As a director that has studied and utilized old WWII footage in the past, Lucas’ influence has allowed Hemingway to recreate some very visceral and masterfully choreographed dogfighting sequences in this film. Every scene in which the pilots are flying is well-executed, capturing the chaos of air combat without overwhelming the audience. He utilizes the time spent in the air to incorporate key character moments as well.
On the ground however, the film suffers from what I can only characterize as “TV movie” syndrome, both in the pacing and the direction. While the actors do a pretty decent job with what they are given, much of the dialogue is paced in a way more familiar to TV viewers (not surprising given Hemingway’s background, but dialogue is far from Lucas’ strength either). There are also some moments when the special effects, both in the air and on the ground, just aren’t quite up to par with what we as an audience have come to expect from mainstream war films.
Red Tails is an uneven film, that only tells half of a compelling story, but kudos to Lucas, who funded this project when so many studios said no. While it’s far from a perfect first step, I do hope enough people are compelled to show their support so we can see these courageous soldiers on the silver screen again in a slightly better film.
Red Tails opens in Philly-area theaters today.