RED TAILS– 3 STARS
According to mega-producer George Lucas, for ridiculously dated reasons, Hollywood doesn’t want to touch so-called “black” films. Big-wig execs supposedly need a few notable white roles to sell their domestic and foreign markets on a movie. Unless your name is Tyler Perry or Eddie Murphy, your black film doesn’t have a high enough “Q” rating to matter and, therefore, won’t make money. To them, it’s not about “street cred” but about putting butts in seats. That trend revisits itself too often year after year when good African-American projects never see the silver screen. Without the need for street cred, there are many excellent black stories, messages, and examples that are more than worth telling.
The true story of the all-black World War II pilot division of the famed Tuskegee Airmen featured in the new film Red Tails is one of them. Like Jackie Robinson in baseball, these men persevered through inequality and adversity to prove their worth and break the color barrier of pilots in the military. Bankrolling the film with his vast Indiana Jones and Star Wars bank account, George Lucas knows the value of their story and fought to get this movie made for over 20 years. His dedication and expertise is our gain. Red Tails succeeds in telling a worthwhile true story of history with a flair for action that can only come from a guy who knows his way around the Force.
Rather than playing on a Saving Private Ryan-level of drama and violence, Red Tails, while filled with a lot of bad old-school good guy/bad guy cliches, is a lighthearted crowd pleaser that feels like a video game one minute and a high school lecture the next. Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. are the veterans that lead a bright young cast of Tuskegee pilots. Howard plays Colonel Bullard, the Tuskegee Airmen’s voice at the Pentagon and Gooding is Major Stance, the base leader for their 332nd Fighter Group in Europe. In the air, the group is lead by the sturdy, yet hesitant Captain Julian, callsign “Easy,” (Nate Parker of The Great Debaters) and his brashly talented wingman Joe, better known as “Lightning” (David Oyelowo of Rise of the Planet of the Apes). They are joined by a mishmash of colorful bright-but-not-too-bright sidekicks played by recording artist Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelly of Hairspray, Tristan Wilds of TV’s The Wire, Kevin Phillips of Notorious, and Marcus Paulk of Take the Lead.
Unlike the renowed 1995 HBO film, The Tuskegee Airmen, starring Laurence Fishburne and a then-younger Cuba Gooding, Jr., which followed the Tuskegee project’s origins and inception back in the states, Red Tails cuts to the chase and takes us straight to 1944 Italy where they’ve been working as a scout squadron in hand-me-down planes. Colonel Bullard pitches the 332nd’s case to get involved in front-line missions while Major Stance keeps them sharp. As history and the movie reminds us, when they got their chance to prove their worth as fighters defending heavy B-17 bomber groups on daytime bomb runs, their enemy kill tallies and returning bomber rates were unmatched by the other white fighter groups. Their successful reputation and their distinctive painted red tail wings earned them acclaim, respect, and notice.
With the gaudy array of visual and sound effects at LucasFilm’s fingertips, Red Tails dazzles and entertains the most when it’s in the air. Even if it’s all CGI, the aerial dogfighting and combat scenes here are unmatched to anything that has come before it. In true George Lucas fashion, the movie is a throwback to the hero glorification of the old WWII films he grew up on. While the HBO film will always cut a little more deeply with the race and drama issues, the modern effects utilized make Red Tails easy entertainment for the big screen for the 10-and-up crowd that made Real Steel a hit last fall. First-time feature director Anthony Hemingway deserved this shot after years as a TV director and assistant director.
Where the movie loses us is on the ground. While the young cast is talented, they are given cookie-cutter and uninteresting stereotypical soldier problems. We’ve seen it before in dozens of movies. There’s always one with a drinking problem, one with an authority problem, one religious one, one college-educated preppie, one group rookie, one redneck, one sage of wisdom, and one that falls for the local girl. Those are the cliches that clutter the narrative when it’s away from the sky. The two veterans save the day. The always underrated Terrance Howard could inspire a deaf man to sing and a blind man to see, and it’s nice to see Cuba Gooding, Jr., after a five year absence from the big screen, assert his strong Men of Honor presence. They bring brevity to a story that deserves our attention and respect.
LESSON #1: AFRICAN-AMERICANS ARE HONORABLE AND PATRIOTIC MEMBERS OF THIS COUNTRY TOO— For years, the powers that be in different levels of authority, both public and military, wrongfully feared that if you gave blacks pieces of power that they rise up like apes from Planet of the Apes. If we let them vote, they would control the government. If we gave them a gun, they would start a coup. In the words of Chad Ochocinco, “Child, please!” Sad history or not, the USA is their home too and they are proud of it. In a situation of war, they have just as much at stake and just as much right to fight for the cause and for their patriotic freedom. They should not have been limited or thought lesser just because of the color of their skin or their ancestry.
LESSON #2: OVERCOMING ADVERSITY— As with most movies that address some aspect of racism and segregation, Red Tails overflows with overcoming adversity. Even in the military, our 332nd pilots had lesser working conditions, substandard equipment, older and slower planes, and the constant stigma of being thought of as inferior. They still outperformed their brethren and competition. That goes to show that all they need is Lesson #3.
LESSON 3: MAKE THE MOST OF THE CHANCES YOU GET— After endlessly conquering adversity, when the Tuskegee Airmen finally got their chance to prove themselves, the took that opportunity serious and succeeded. The idea of everyone deserving a chance is one thing, but what you do with those rare chances is another, especially during the life-and-death of war. Succeed and new chances are earned and lives are saved. Fail and that chance may not return again and your chance to prove your critics wrong goes unfulfilled.
Showtimes can be found at your local west side Chicago theaters. Advance tickets can be purchased at many of those locations through Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com.