If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Over the years, there have been so many stories about World War II made in books, movies and video games that one would think the topic had been exhausted. However, one story that has often been conspicuously absent from the public consciousness is that of the contributions black soldiers made during the Great War. Red Tails tells the story of the 332d Fighter Group of the Tuskegee Airmen: soldiers who faced persecution as civilians all the while facing that same prejudice in uniform. Much has been made about how Hollywood will not fund a film on this topic and how George Lucas has been working on this project for nearly 20 years. Lucas ultimately funded the production himself, but one can infer a great deal about how lots of studios and distributors simply lack confidence in the public's interest in a story like this. Unfortunately, the story behind making this film is much better than the one the film presents.
If you're wondering why I decided to open this review in bright red text with an Arial font, good. Because that was my exact same question when this film opened up. The opening credits for this movie were my first indication that already, something was amiss here. I guess when one has to fund a movie alone, it's necessary to trim budgets, but I was only momentarily deterred by this. If Avatar can get away with the Papyrus font, I can forgive it here.
Soon enough, we were introduced to our protagonists. Nate Parker plays Martin "Easy" Julian, the highly groomed leader of the outfit with a penchant for protocol but battles the demon in the bottle as well. Opposite of him is David Oyelowo as Joe "Lightning" Little, a hotshot pilot and ladies man that takes unnecessary risks and is often at odds with his leader / best friend. That is the end of the character list since "character" implies an aggregate of traits. Every other role is a one-note part that is encapsulated by either their name or the decal on the side of their plane. Joker makes jokes, Junior is the baby face and Deacon prays to Black Jesus. These roles aren't necessarily poorly done mind you. As much as Ne-Yo's country accent made me twinge at first, his rapport with his cast mates was good enough to not grate on me. The black pilots don't (except Easy and Lightning) don't have much depth, but it's because they're written that way and not due to casting. Still, I can't forgive how forgettable that the movie treats most of these characters. They're just thrown in for good measure and nothing more. Characters get captured, injured and killed but the movie will simply forget about them and this is no exaggeration.
That's the best I can say as far as performances. Everyone else in the film ranges from meh to plain bad. The black veteran actors mostly channel previous roles they've played. Cuba Gooding Jr spent his entire time biting on a pipe so hard that I can only presume he was hungry from craft service budget being cut after fonts. He does his part but, sleepwalks here. You'd think being in HBO's Tuskegee Airmen film or the sole beacon of light in Pearl Harbor would've helped, but alas no. Terrence Howard once again is serviceable but derivative. He gives the same speeches he did playing the swim coach in Pride and with that same face that makes him perpetually look on the verge of tears. It's probably because this is the closest chance he has to playing War Machine. You don't really get to know anyone else. White characters are almost entirely racist for no reason at times. And not in a "there is not reason for hate" kind of way. I mean, they say hateful things solely for the reason of working up the audience. The thing is, these characters will go from being biggots to loving the Red Tails in the next scene. I kid you not. There's a scene where a bunch of white pilots offer to but the 332d drinks and the Red Tails have the same dumbfounded look of confusion on their faces that I had while watching.
All this accounts for the greatest sin: the writing. John Ridley [Undercover Brother] and Aaron McGruder [Boondocks] are credited as writers, but knowing their writing styles, I'm suspicious of how much they wrote was kept. If previous work is any indication, George Lucas has a habit for gutting story in favor of CGI. Director Anthony Hemingway in his first film effort here may very well have fallen victim to that. The story is nearly non-existent and the writing is just bad. There are a couple of jokes that got chuckles out of me, but I laughed more at the hokey dialogue that people had to say in dogfights. Some make no sense. One scene entails a black soldier concerned with going out in German territory because he'll "stick out like a pig in a poultry shop." What? Wouldn't one tend to think nothing of seeing a pig in a poultry shop? This is just an example of the bad writing that plagues this film. The worst acting is there because there is no one out there that can say some of those lines with conviction.
At this point, the only thing that can save movie is the action. The movie has three dogfights in them and, I would say that the CG used for them was mostly well done. Some of planes look far too shiny, but that's the price for not going with practical effects. Too bad it also surfers from technical issues like audio. There are points when bullets are firing and engines rev, but they make no sound. If story was this movie's worst enemy then editing was the kid that used to take its lunch money. The action in the first two fights is actually exciting at times and provide the most "suspense" that movie can muster. But the last dogfight is short and anticlimactic. It audibly made people ask ,"was that it?"
World War II is probably the most highly explored piece of subject matter ever pressed to film (perhaps second only to movies about dogs playing sports). The acts of true heroism that great men and women undertook in this time inspired little kids to fully grown adults to a higher standard courage, loyalty and strength. But it is far from a secret to realize how much easier it is to identify with heroes that look like you or come from a similar background. As a black kid, I of course idolized my parents growing up but, my heroes were often fictional too. I'd project myself in their roles pretending to be them like any other red-blooded kid with an imagination. It's just that there was always this invisible hurdle of distinction that kept me from looking up to the likes of a John Wayne like kids did in the 50s. I watch every episode of Power Rangers for years. And yes, I was drawn to Tommy and how hard he went, but the character I couldn't help but identify with was the one with a gumby haircut and fought in hip hopkido.
I will most assuredly credit Red Tails for giving little black boys, as I once was, a chance to idealize Black American heroes. Do not be mistaken. This is not a biographical motion picture. It is a period piece action flick and should assessed as such. Unfortunately, it does not fair much better to the criticisms of this genre either. At least it was better than Bay's Pearl Harbor or Spike Lee's Miracle ay St. Anna. I'll put it like this, if you're looking to see a movie about a formerly enslaved, disenfranchised race of people banning together with those different from them to fight a common evil...you're better off seeing Underworld: Awakening this weekend.