Monday, January 23, 2012

Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails
Dir. Anthony Hemingway

2.5 out of 5

Upon its release in 2009, I tabbed Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds with the potential to annihilate the repetitious World War II movie paradigm of bland deference and esteem, or at least make it a little more self-aware. What I didn't count on was the stubborn will and blithe disregard of George Lucas. In his long-gestating war film Red Tails, we have the exact tonal opposite of the gleefully anarchic Basterds. Yet its approach is surprisingly similar - a hyper-earnest fantasy of wartime drawing inspiration from a rich genre legacy, if not borrowing elements directly from older, more recognizable films. The key difference, however, is that Red Tails is so achingly sincere in its desire to deliver a well-intentioned, wide-angle drama about war, race, and America that it fails to engage on a personal level with its characters or its audience. Instead, Lucas and company see fit to clumsily arrange men and events and facts in a heavy-handed symbolic tableau. In telling its story of uncommon courage in the skies, Red Tails never stops playing to the rafters.

Though hardly the first to approach the subject of the Tuskegee Airmen - an elite group of African-American aviators, the first such unit in the U.S. military - director Anthony Hemingway's film is the first to give them the full-on blockbuster treatment. It focuses largely on squadron leader Martin "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and ace pilot Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo), two men with their share of philosophical differences that are neatly summarized by their nicknames. They clash just as easily in matters of combat protocol as they do in their political approach to the army's overt racism. Commanding officers Terence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. are there to stand up to army brass reluctant to give the Tuskegee group a meaningful mission and whip up the troops with inspirational speeches, but neither leaves a terribly specific impression. The film's breathtaking dogfights are all that's left to redeem its stock characters and routine plot. Red Tails is at its most effective when dispelling notions of individual glory bred by years of Top Gun clones, portraying aerial combat as a group undertaking with a razor-thin margin of error. It suggests that the steely determination of second-class citizens with something to prove makes those men better pilots, and feels like it lands mighty close to the truth.

Yet this is not a feeling that Red Tails can sustain over two hours of what is more of a reverent homage to the Tuskegee pioneers than a compelling narrative film. Quite frankly, it is all over the place, haphazardly plotted and reliant on cornball clich├ęs or outright theft - one minor subplot plays like deleted scenes from The Great Escape, as confounding as it is completely unnecessary. The tin-eared dialogue from co-writers John Ridley and Aaron McGruder doesn't help matters, highlighting juvenile preoccupations that bear the fingerprints of Lucas, who personally financed the entire project. The excellent supporting cast, stacked with alums of HBO's The Wire, truly deserves most of the credit for the film's watchability. In all honesty, it's a minor miracle that this 20-year cinematic boondoggle manages to avoid total disaster, even as its dewy-eyed godfather keeps the movie grounded in naivete and never gives it a chance to soar.


  1. maybe i'm wrong, and i'm not seeing the movie until tomorrow, but i get the feeling that the entire film is What White People Want the Black Experience to Be, rather than being anything like what the Black Experience actually is.

  2. I'll be interested to hear your take on it, but I think it's closer to What People Want World War II History to Be - simple, direct, and with lots of easily digestible metaphors. Though it's got some cringe-worthy (and some good) discussions of race, at least RED TAILS was written and directed by African-Americans, save for Lucas stepping in for some re-shoots after Hemingway began working on TREME. Having Lucas as a guiding force does make it different from MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, for example, which dealt with several complex issues surrounding WWII, racism among them. However, the main difference is that of a a dense character-driven story versus a pretty historical pageant filled with various archetypes and composites, with questions of racial authenticity as a smaller issue.