Red Tails Delivers Stunning Special Effects, But No Substance: Movie Review
Set in World War II Italy, Red Tails follows the travails of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 332nd Fighter Group, popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African Americans allowed to fly combat missions in the U.S. military. Outfitted with hand-me-down planes (whose tails are painted red) and relegated by racist Army brass to strafing missions rather than serious offensives, the pilots are hungry to prove themselves worthy of more complex assignments in the war against the Germans.
First: The planes. If you’re looking for dogfight action, Red Tails offers what might be the most breathtaking aerial scenes I have ever seen, all generated by computers at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. American B-25 bombers and German Me 262 jets realistically soar, with amazing detail, down to the rivets. Engines and machine guns on the Tuskegees’ P-40s and P-51s roar and rumble from right to left and front to back around the theater as they engage the Luftwaffe in dogfights and attack Nazi ground targets. Purists may prefer seeing Top Gun-style real planes in action, but the camera angles made possible through George Lucas’s legendary computer imagery are simply unbeatable.
If it’s a history piece that delves into deeper issues of prejudice in 1940s America or detailed accounts of the war itself you’re after, Red Tails will leave you disappointed. Complex concepts are reduced to cartoonish conversations made up of cliched dialogue and catchphrases. While some creative license is understandable, many topics are never explained.
In the movie’s first shot, the screen bears the words, “Blacks are mentally inferior to the white man, by nature subservient… cowardly… and therefore unfit for combat,” quoted from a 1925 Army War College report. That is the beginning and end of the movie’s intellectual discourse about the struggles of blacks to gain acceptance in the U.S. military. The rest is served up in very brief glimpses of how the military’s institutional racism played out.
There is never any background on how the Tuskegee Airmen came into existence, nor how the characters ended up flying planes. There’s the hotshot pilot, the alcoholic pilot, the wisecracking pilot, but no explanation of how they became pilots two decades before the Civil Rights era, in a period when racial segregation was practiced extensively, and blacks in the military were often relegated to menial jobs far from the front lines. How did A.J. Bullard, the fictional black Colonel played by Terrence Howard, reach such a high rank? How did he manage to get his racist white superiors to listen to him? The audience is left to do their own research.
And when the 332nd finally is assigned to escort heavy bombers run on a German target, the dialogue reaches absurd levels of corniness. Upon realizing they’re being escorted by the Red Tails, one white bomber pilot says to the other, “I wouldn’t expect our escorts to be much help today, boys.” After completing the mission unharmed and realizing that the “colored pilots” had actually provided the best protection they’d ever received, the white pilot says, “Boy, I sure hope we meet up with those Red Tails again!” Never is the question broached about what it was that made the black pilots superior to the white pilots? Was it simply that they had more to prove, or were they actually more skilled?
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one that should be told and honored for as long as World War II history is discussed. While Red Tails is hampered by a weak script and lackluster acting, hopefully it will inspire viewers to learn more about the great men who broke the color barrier among military aviators. For a start, the HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen, is a more informative option, as is the PBS documentary, “The Tuskegee Airmen: They Fought Two Wars.”
In a recent interview, George Lucas said that he has been trying to make Red Tails for decades, but its all-black cast frightened Hollywood studios from producing it. Lucas finally decided to finance the film himself to the tune of just under $60 million, according to some reports. Given the obvious importance of the subject matter to Lucas, such a poor finished product is even more unfortunate.