Red Tails (PG-13)
Directed by Anthony Hemingway. 120 minutes.
During World War II, African American military pilots fought bigotry from their own country and fought Axis aggressors overseas to prove themselves worthy of their wings— and, in the process, accelerated the once-unimaginable integration of the U.S. Armed Forces. Their story has inspired generations of Americans, but it still hasn’t inspired a movie worthy of its achievement. Red Tails isn’t that movie, despite its heavy publicity campaign and respectable box-office take. It’s a gung-ho, by-the-numbers genre picture, a high-gloss George Lucas product packaged with gleaming action figures, sleek machinery, and sweeping visual effects. It’s also likely the best possible Tuskegee Airmen epic we can expect in an age when toy makers and comic book artists command Hollywood.
The 332nd Fighter Group—one of nine squadrons assembled from the ranks of over 900 trained black pilots—gets center stage in this movie’s script by veteran satirists John Ridley (Undercover Brother) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks). This band-of-brothers-in-the-air includes Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), a suave scion of the “Talented Tenth” who nips from an ever-present pint of hooch to soothe his nerves, and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), the squadron’s dashing (read: reckless) ace whose penchant for risk-taking includes scuffling with bigoted white officers stationed in the same Italian town.
They and their fellow pilots are getting bored with strafing trucks and trains in rickety P-40s. But thanks to tireless stateside campaigning by their grandiloquent commander, A. J. Bullard (Terrence Howard, playing this surrogate for real-life pioneer Benjamin O. Davis Jr.), they’re about to step up in fighter class (to P-51s) and in assignment (to bomber escort duty).
Red Tails is properly earnest about amassing historical detail. But, shepherded by the man behind Star Wars, it really hits its peaks when metal flashes across the skies and stuff blows up. The truth is, it’s as gratifying as it is thrilling to watch black pilots carrying out barrel rolls, loops, and dogfights without thinking of them as victims first. The problem is, they’re not quite characters either. They’re more archetypal, with quirks and foibles writ large. Take Cuba Gooding Jr., who portrayed a callow, swaggering Tuskegee Airman in the 1995 made-for-TV movie. Here, as Major Emanuel Stance, he is reduced to pensively puffing on a pipe and nodding sagely at whatever happens around him. Gooding and the other actors do the best they can—and then some—with what they’re given. But for all its big-production fireworks, Red Tails leaves the nagging feeling that, one more time, the Tuskegee Airmen have been forced to settle for less than they deserve.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.