Red Tails wasn’t the film that producer George Lucas wanted to make, at least not exactly. Lucas originally wanted to tell a much longer story of the African American World War II heroes known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He wanted to tell a story from pre-war to their return stateside and dealing with the same prejudices which had been alleviated somewhat after their war-time heroics. There were once even talks of the film having a prequel and sequel, the latter to be directed by Spike Lee. Lucas had been developing the film since 1988 and fighting the Hollywood minds. Major studios told him that the film and its all-black cast were unmarketable. Finally Lucas decided to take matters into his own hands and spent just under $60 million out of his own pocket on the production and marketing of the film. Lucas recently said he would retire from blockbusters after Red Tails, citing a desire to make more personal films and mentioned that fans’ critiques of what he’s done with his own creation –Star Wars that is- has worn thin. Lucas himself opted not to direct the film and gave the opportunity to first-time director Anthony Hemingway.
It’s painful to say that Lucas’s money was not well spent. The John Wayne film The Flying Leathernecks was influential in the aerial battles. Red Tails sort of seems like it was shot in the same time period as Leathernecks. The battles seem dated, it’s understandable that the planes must be old, but for this kind of budget and from the man who brought us Star Wars, I expected more from the effects team. The film opens as a ragtag band of pilots fly around blowing up trucks and maybe a few cows. They are extremely undisciplined and giddy. These are not what you would expect heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen to act like; you might say it allows for a character arc, yet there is only the smallest arc in one character and none from others. The secondary players like white pilots and their white generals stateside who grow to prefer the Tuskegee pilots to their own, display the only real arcs. The dialogue leaves something to be desired, you can blame that on the screenplay written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, writer of comic-strip The Boondocks. The acting in the opening scene is largely terrible as well; it does get better by the end of the film, still not great. Outside of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard, R&B singer Ne-Yo may have been the most inspired actor in the field. David Oyelowo and Nate Parker are fine as ‘Lightning’ and ‘Easy’ respectively, but nothing spectacular. If you’re a fan of the genre or love the history it’s worth a rent, otherwise I suggest watching an HBO television film called simply The Tuskegee Airmen, for an estimated $8.5 million, it is far superior and touts a more talented cast in Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, Courtney B. Vance and Mekhi Phifer as well as Christopher McDonald and John Lithgow.