Red Tails tells the story of the Tuskeegee airmen, African American fighter pilots who fought racism as well as the Luftwaffe to take the war tot he Third Reich. The name refers to the distinctive red tail markings that they used on their Mustang fighters. Red Tails was directed by Anthony Hemingway, and produced by George Lucas, who spent years working to get it made. This movie has a lot of what you would expect from a George Lucas film. It looks great, no corners are cut, no effort is spared, and Lucas brings to his World War II dogfights the thrills and immediacy he brought to the attack on the Death Star a long time ago, in another movie far, far, away. In the air, Red Tails rocks. On the ground, it’s more hit and miss.
Red Tails opens in Italy in 1944, where the 332nd Fighter group, composed solely of African American pilots, is relegated to flying mostly boring routine patrols, well away from the main action. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the 332nd’s commander, Colonel A J Bullard (Terrence Howard) is fighting to keep the Tuskeegee airmen from being shut down. But American bombers are suffering crippling losses over Germany because their escort fighters are being drawn away to dogfight with the Germans, leaving the Flying Fortresses unprotected. Bullard and his men are given another chance, and trade in their antiquated planes for new Mustang fighters and new mission: protect the bombers at all costs.
Red Tails has a sort of comic book feel to it. This isn’t meant as a put down because well done comic book movies (Like Zack’s superb 300), can be a lot of fun. But Lucas and Hemigway paint with an awfully broad brush. The Nazis in the movie are the same sort of sneering, over the top Nazis that Lucas featured in the Indiana Jones flicks. The lead German pilot has a long scar down the side of his face to make him suitably menacing. Lucas is sending a message, admittedly a worthy one, about equality and acceptance, but at times he works against himself. If anything, the degree of racism faced by the Tuskeegee airmen was even worse than this movie depicts. They were not, for example, allowed to serve as instructors for white pilots, but Lucas gives the impression that the barriers of racism and prejudice were entirely demolished by the end of the war. Well, it probably looked better that way up on screen. The number of Me-262s seen in the climactic dogfight looks a bit on the high side, considering the small numbers of those planes actually deployed, and their rather low sortie rate. But again, it looks great up on the screen.
If Red Tails soars in the air, it sometimes feels like it’s just revving its engines on the ground. John Ridley’s screenplay hares off into way too many subplots, some of which just don’t work. Captain “Easy” Julian’s drinking problem never has much in the way of consequences or repercussions for him or his fellow fliers, and the whole subplot becomes largely a waste of time. He drinks until he doesn’t. It feels like filler to take up the time between dogfights. Likewise “Junior” Gannon’s escape from a German POW camp feels pretty much like filler, since we never really see anything of it, or even how he made it out. Again, it takes up time between aerial combat scenes. Too much time, in fact, because at 125 minutes, Red Tails feels a bit long.
One subplot that does work pretty well is Joe “Lighting” Little’s (David Oyelowo) romance with an Italian girl (Daniela Ruah). Oyelowo, who played in the BBC spy drama MI-5, is an immensely likeable and talented actor, and you enjoy rooting for him in love and in the air. (He’s British, but able to talk like a Yank.) In fact, Red Tails has a fine cast overall. Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr both have real command presence, and the gravitas to play leaders of men. Nate Parker is outstanding as Julian. The actors uniformly have the skill and acting chops to make the audience care about their characters despite the flaws in John Ridley’s screenplay, and this serves to heighten the drama when the movie takes to the air.
It’s been reported that George Lucas spent nearly 25 years trying to get Red Tails made. If that’s because it took that long for the special effects technology to become available, then it’s understandable. Given the technical wizardry on display, it’s hard to imagine this movie being made 25 years ago, at least in anything approaching its present form. But it’s being reported today that Hollywood is surprised by the strong showing that Red Tails is making at the box office. If it took 25 years to make this movie because Hollywood didn’t think there was a market for a movie glorifying the valor and exploits of American fighter pilots, with thrilling aerial combat scenes and an outstanding cast, then Hollywood is even dumber than we thought.