Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Method Man, Ne-Yo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan, Bryan Cranston
George Lucas, John Ridley
20th Century Fox
Blu-ray/DVD Combo release (“Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War”, “George Lucas: Executive Producer”, “Anthony Hemingway: Director”, “Terence Blanchard: Composer”, “The Cast of Red Tails”, “Movie Magic”, “THX Media Director”).
I was watching him as he left the theater.
At 89-years-old, he moved slowly and intentionally and with much support from those around him. "He" was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, and his attendance at this promo screening of Red Tails, the retro-styled new film from producer George Lucas that tells pieces of their story, added a palpable excitement and hint of emotional depth to the film and its story.
As the film ended and the audience applauded, this obviously dignified elderly gentleman was offered the opportunity to provide his own feedback on the film.
You could tell that he was struggling to do so. You could tell that he was struggling for words that would not seem negative towards the obviously well-intended film that often felt like a cartoonish, Indiana Jones style version of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. You could tell by simply watching his face that the film had touched on his feelings and his life experiences, yet you could also tell from his clinging words that what he'd witnessed on the big screen hadn't come close to what he'd experienced in real life. It was an entertaining film, yet it didn't truly express his experiences.
There was a hint of disappointment in his expressions, yet also a sense of gratitude that someone was at least attempting to tell the story.
He was proud. You could tell.
Red Tails is a proud part of Black history brought to life on the big screen largely because of the lifelong dream of Star Wars creator George Lucas. Lucas tried for many years to get studio backing for this project, coming close on multiple occasions only to experience a setback. Finally, he financed the entire project himself.
This is a story that needs to be told, a story birthed out of a nation that began its formative years steeped in racism and that continues to struggle with the idea of humanity's equality regardless of skin color. In these days of World War II, Blacks were allowed to serve yet they were clearly not considered equal as news article after news article shared openly and fervently. The Tuskegee Airmen were initially relegated to mostly irrelevant aerial tasks utilizing second-hand aircraft and supplies. Those familiar with their inspiring story, a story that inspires even this pacifist, know that once given the chance to truly perform and provide air cover for bombers along their missions they performed exceedingly well and selflessly.
Red Tails doesn't really tell the story. I'm not sure it really could. But, it does tell a story and, despite those George Lucas action hero tendencies, it's a film that consistently entertains and informs and may be one of the most accessible films that has a hope of reaching a wider audience with this story.
Red Tails is a popcorn flick that you will either surrender to or you won't. If you don't, you'll leave the theater most likely observing Lucas and John Ridley's often wooden dialogue and the film's uneven acting and even odd casting choices. If, however, you surrender to the film you'll likely leave the theater wanting to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen and feeling mighty good about how you'd spent your last two hours being entertained and occasionally moved.
The film has all the obligatory character stereotypes.
There's Captain Julian (Nate Parker), a gifted pilot and the squadron's leader with a penchant for booze and an ill-advised tendency to drink before he flies. There's Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyewolo, in the film's strongest performance), the squadron's best pilot and a bit of a daredevil who also gets the film's only romantic thread courtesy of his barely developed relationship with an Italian woman (Daniela Ruah). There's also Raygun (Tristan Wilds), a newbie whom Capt. Julian may be mistaken in allowing back into the skies after an eye injury limits his vision. Raygun eventually becomes the first Black American soldier to be placed in a POW camp where he displays even greater heroism.
There are supporting players played by such well known Black musicians/actors as Method Man and Ne-Yo while the squadron's brass is represented by Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard), who fights for the right of his men to fight on the front lines, and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who smokes a pipe. A lot.
Most of the characters here are caricatures at best, irrelevant at worst. Only the sibling-like relationship between Captain Julian and Joe Little is truly developed, and it's these two mostly unknown actors who shine most brightly in the film. The romantic relationship adds a little depth to the character of Little, but it also adds very little to the story and makes the film a tad too long at its two hour running time.
The film's flight sequences will likely make you think of Indiana Jones or Star Wars, though Lucas is hoping they will make you think of Golden Era Hollywood war films. Not quite. Mostly, you'll just realize that they're obviously artificially created given Lucas's access to a wealth of special effects at LucasFilm.
Red Tails isn't a bad film, though, as I propose that elderly Tuskegee Airman was contemplating at the film's Indianapolis promo screening, neither does it truly represent an accurate nor truly resonant representation of the fullness of the Tuskegee Airmen's experience. It's, quite simply, a film that entertains reasonably well while telling a story that it's important to tell.
Red Tails is a flawed film, yet it's a film that deserves an audience and for its story to be heard.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic