A Movie Review

of Red Tails (2012)

 

By Lance Zedric

 Red Tails (20th Century Fox, 2012) is Hollywood at its worst. Seventy years ago the best, brightest, and most highly qualified black candidates volunteered to become army aviators and to prove that they were equal to their white counterparts. Through outstanding academic performance, technical skill, and moral and physical courage in the face of racism in America, and in brutal combat in the skies over Europe, the Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Pursuit Squadron; the 332d Fighter Group; and the 477th Bombardment Group, known later as “Red Tails” and “Red Tails Angels,” because of the painted red tails on their aircraft, helped pave the way toward desegregation in the armed services and equality in America. It is a shame that Hollywood could produce nothing better than Red Tails to showcase one of America’s outstanding military units and to suitably honor the men who constituted its ranks.

The film, running approximately 2 hours, was a cinematic crucifixion. And executive producer George Lucas (Star Wars et al) and crew, held the nails and hammer. The first glaring deficiency of Red Tails is a lack of a suitable introduction that puts the history of the unit into context and (pardon the pun) pilots the movie. Red Tails begins with Allied bombers getting plucked out of the sky by German fighters, which magnifies the need for competent fighter escorts, but it does little to illustrate the creation of the unit or focus on the quality of the men and what they went through to earn their wings. Rather, the movie segues into an excruciatingly, disconnected 30-minute mélange of characters that appear buffoonish, unprofessional, and cartoon like. That’s fine if viewers think a Pee Wee Herman movie is good history or that the Tuskegee Airmen were a collection of jiving, inarticulate, hip-hop flyboys who never rendered a salute to a superior officer or maintained military bearing within their own unit. Such representation not only discredits the real Tuskegee Airmen, but also insults veterans everywhere.

The bulk of the action in Red Tails occurs while the unit is stationed in Italy and focuses on its struggle to get meaningful missions and to establish itself as a legitimate combat unit while fighting resistance and racism at home and in the army. It is here that the characters begin to evolve and the movie becomes marginally bearable. Predictably, one of the pilots falls in love with a beautiful Italian girl, which exposes the more sensitive side of the Tuskegee airmen, but which also illuminates the studio’s transparent ploy to sell tickets to women. While the love interest does add needed texture to the story and is central to the sad, but unmistakably apple pie ending, it lacks enough meat and potatoes to carry the meal.L-R: Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard

The bitter historical gumbo of Red Tails is further thickened by contrived, unrealistic, and downright corny dialogue calmly uttered by Red Tail pilots while German ME-262 jet fighters, piloted by arrogantly despicable Nazis, are on their “red tails” whistling white hot rounds into their cockpits. Despite bandoliers of cheesy clichés, the CGI dogfight scenes are relatively entertaining, especially those depicting the ME-262s, which have not been well represented in the movies up to this time. So kudos to Lucas and the boys for that tasty table scrap.  But an ort of fat does not a meal make. Not even Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard, both fine actors, could breathe spark into this dud. Both lacked presence and conviction in their performances but should not be judged solely by this work. Even Babe Ruth struck out once in a while.

The most disturbing aspect of Red Tails (besides the plot and dialogue) is the specious history that it propagates, i.e., the claim that the 332nd never lost a bomber to enemy action and that it even sunk a destroyer. Those claims alone are highly controversial, and recent scholarship augmented by eyewitness accounts, strongly suggests that some 25 bombers were lost while under escort by the unit. But such debates should be left up to historians, and regardless of whatever new evidence is unearthed, the Tuskegee Airmen compiled an outstanding combat record that saved countless lives and contributed substantially to the overall victory in Europe. Moreover, the unit and its men stand as shining examples of what sustained excellence and perseverance can overcome regardless of race. That is beyond debate. While shoddy historical research may embellish or misrepresent the facts, it rarely shoots down a good story. Only a poor movie with the power to reach and affect millions of viewers in one withering volley can do that, and sadly,  Red Tails is right on target.  Pvt. E-1 out of General. No stars. No stripes.

L-R: Michael B. Jordan, Elijah Kelley, David Oyelowo, Leslie Odom Jr. and Nate Parker