Over the past several decades, movies have commemorated almost every aspect of World War II.
Among the most overlooked (and underrated) stories of the war is that of the Tuskegee Airmen. With the exception of a 1995 HBO movie and a borderline lampoonish mention in 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the 332nd Fighter Group has been largely ignored.
The several hundred men who served as the first African-American combat pilots in history had a nearly impeccable record, successfully protecting U.S. bomber squadrons during their runs over Europe.
Now Executive Producer George Lucas brings their story to the big screen in Red Tails, and frankly, they deserve better.
Though not a complete failure, Red Tails comes off as more of a dumbed-down, amateur film than the $50 million feature film it is.
The script by John Ridley and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder seems as though it’s ripped from the pages of some corny 1950s comic book, and it gets entirely bogged down with too many subplots that jump around all over the place. One soldier’s a drunk! Another is a charmer with the local ladies! One gets captured by the Germans, and, oh yeah, don’t call him “Junior”!
But even worse is the fact that the entire movie seems like it’s set in some sanitized version of World War II, where soldiers sit strumming a guitar and playing cards in the beautiful Italian sunshine. There’s no fear and no sense that the next flight may be their last. Didn’t someone once say that war is hell?
As soon as the pilots take to the sky, though, Red Tails comes close to earning its wings. Full of CGI-heavy (though still very believable) aerial dogfights, it puts you right in the cockpit as the guys work to send the Nazis back to where they came from. It’s Top Gun 40 years earlier with movie magic 25 years more advanced.
The largely unknown cast does a good job, especially considering the material they were given. David Oyelowo (The Help) is solid as the hot shot pilot who can’t follow orders but somehow keeps surviving, and Nate Parker holds the action together as the leader of the Red Tails squadron.
Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terence Howard are among the only notable faces in the cast and by-and-large disappointing; apparently they felt like they had to single-handedly make up for the lack of big name talent around them. Gooding becomes little more than a caricature as gnaws on a pipe like nobody’s business, and Howard’s soft-spoken, indignant colonel makes you wonder what happened to the brilliance he showed in movies like Hustle & Flow and Crash.
Director Anthony Hemingway (no doubt with Lucas standing just over his shoulder) certainly has talent, but somewhere along the way he should have just stopped and thrown his hands up at the completely incohesive script.
At the end of the day, Red Tails does succeed in its primary mission– teaching us all a little about the Tuskegee Airmen and their vital role in World War II.
It just would have been nice if the movie really did them justice.