Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Opens locally Friday, January 20th, 2012
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence
Howard, Ne-Yo, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley
Directed by Anthony Hemingway (feauture film debut)
There's no question about the historical importance of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American brigade of pilots that fought during World War II. The American military was racially segregated as was most of the country, and the actions and bravery of these "red tails" (a nickname given for having painted all of the tails of their planes red), were actually an important pre-cursor to the civil rights movement that would follow in the coming years. Their story presented as a PG-13 film however, doesn't do justice to the realities of war or the real hardships that these men most assuredly had to overcome.
When we meet this band of African-American pilots, the group is stationed in Italy and are routinely ordered to carry out very menial tasks, such as sweeping areas long abandoned by enemy troops, or attacking lone vehicles on the highway. They fly hand-me-down planes and dream of being involved in meaningful missions. State side, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) is fighting for their hopes to come true, trying to keep the squad airborn and for the boys to see some real action.
Much of the film is spent developing the many different pilots and their unique (if cliched) personalities. Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) is the squad leader and an alcoholic. His best friend is the rogue pilot "Lightning" (David Oyelowo) who can't follow orders. Others go by the names of Joker, Junior, and Neon. They're all closer than just friends, as only soldiers can truly know and understand. They're bond is made even deeper due to the segregration and racism they all face in their lives.
The film's main objective, I would guess, would be to tell the story of these men and to highlight their historical impact. To this end, Red Tails does a good job. When they are finally given a purposeful mission, they exceed expectations. By spending a lot of time on the men and their relationships with one another, the movie avoids the trap of becoming a documentary devoid of humanity.
But several small problems took away from the film's effectiveness. Cuba Gooding Jr., for example, is miscast as what is supposed to be an elderly Major in charge of the Airmen. He may be getting older, but that baby-face just didn't seem believable puffing on a pipe in nearly every scene. One character falls in love with an Italian women, who just lets this African-American pilot into her home. Really? That's sweet and all, but in 1940s Italy I doubt that most families would be so welcoming of foreigners, especially those of color.
The dogfighting sequences on the other hand (and there are more than a few) are truly riveting. Cliches of the genre though, permeate each sequence and the film as a whole. If you've seen Top Gun, you've seen much of Red Tailsalready. The writers make a few poor, contrived decisions as well, such as when we meet a German pilot known as "Pretty Boy," who acts as the film's villain. Really? What are the chances that this same German pilot would face the red tails time and time again? And do we really need him sneering up at the Airmen as they fly overhead, plotting revenge?
The biggest flaw of Red Tails however, was the choice to deliver this story as PG-13. Sure, this rating means that it is much more accessible to a wider audience, and perhaps allows the film to reach a younger generation unfamiliar with the story. But it also means that much of the harshness of war and the overall focus of the film ended up being watered down. Much of Red Tails had a TV-movie feel to it, a sense that all things come with happy endings and neatly-tied bows. Many of the plotlines and conclusions can be seen a mile away, by anybody who's ever watched a movie before. Even tragic moments in the film are handled with kids gloves, rarely giving us a sense of real-life danger even when right smack dab in the middle of battle.
Even with my gripes and my longing for more realism, much of Red Tails is done well, even when working within the cliched constraints of the dogfighting genre. We grow to like the different pilots, and to root for them to succeed. The film does not shy away from showing that racism exists (albeit a PG-13 portrayal), accurately showing the hypocritical stances of the U.S. government during the era. It's an important story, if not an overly important film. It may be interesting to note that this story was the long-time passion project of George Lucas, who has been trying to get the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to the screen for several years.
Red Tails is best when airborn, and when relaying the importance of this amazing group of African-American pioneers. It's a film that is about color, but not the primary color that you may first think...rather, it's about the red, white, and blue.
These are American heroes, colorless.
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