“They fight! They fight!” Some of the young leads of the hokey and cliche-riddled but somehow still thrilling and inspiring Red Tails.
The dialog is horrendous. Hokey, riddled with cliches, almost purely expository. The characters are stock characters cut and pasted together out of a thousand movies and TV shows. The situations are also cut and paste jobs although mostly limited to World War II Movies We Have Known and Loved, including, unexpectedly, considering this is a movie about the war in the air, Stalag 17 and The Great Escape. And if the dogfights aren’t as obviously cgi-ed as the inevitable video game, they aren’t as well thought out or plotted either. Planes appear out of nowhere and fly any old which way, without any strict attempt to place them in particular positions in relation to each other in the sky or to show how they got in those positions, and those planes, especially if they have stars on the wings and not crosses, are able to pull off maneuvers that only model airplanes being flown by the twelve year old boys who built them are capable of without stalling or tearing their own wings off.
It’s the kind of war movie in which all the main characters have personality-defining nicknames. Easy, Lightning, Junior, Joker, Smokey, Deacon.
It’s the kind of war movie in which the hotshot pilot learns to be a team player just in time and the kid grows up and you know Death has it in for the guy we’ve just learned now has everything to live for.
It’s the kind of war movie in which every scene of our heroes pulling off a seemingly impossible feat of derring-do is preceded by a scene of someone predicting that our heroes won’t be able to pull off that feat because it’s impossible.
It’s the kind of war movie in which the Jerrys---although I don’t remember hearing them called Jerrys, which would make that one of the few cliches the script misses, but then there are no British characters---have only one ace and he manages to lead every German squadron our heroes encounter, no matter where over the whole of Italy the fight takes place and no matter what type of plane the Luftwaffe scrambles that day, and he’s a smirking sadist, an obvious NAZI motivated solely by arrogance and the pleasure of killing our good, God-fearing American boys who themselves are motivated by duty, honor, responsibility, and the desire to do what’s right by their friends and country. And of course the last time the Nazi ace shows up it’s to go one on one in the air with our ace.
It’s that kind of war movie, and yet, somehow, Red Tails is still an exciting and inspiring film.
To start with, it’s based on a true story and that story is exciting and inspiring even just in outline. Red Tails is a fictionalized but not fabulized account of the exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group---more famously known as the Tuskegee Airman, the African-American pilots who in the racially-segregated military of World War II became one of the most decorated units in the war. History makes Red Tails a sequel to Glory and it’s depressing and infuriating to realize that eighty years after the men of the Massachusetts 54th left the beach before Fort Wagner red with their blood, black Americans still had their courage, their intelligence, their patriotism, and their personhood openly doubted and had to prove themselves all over again, as if the 54th, the Buffalo Soldiers, the soldiers who fought in the integrated Army in World War I hadn’t proved it again and again that that not only would black men fight for their country, they could fight.
It’s satisfying and thrilling to watch these fictional pilots prove it all, again and again, knowing they’re doing it as stand-ins for real-life heroes.
Director Anthony Hemingway and screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder celebrate and respect the history, giving it to us without too much sentimentality or bombast. The upside of the characters being stock characters borrowed from other war movies is that for long stretches of time they might as well be in those movies. This allows them be themselves, their thoughts and their subplots taken up with issues and concerns apart from their places in history. They are aware that they have to prove something to the bigots in the Army Air Corps and back home in the States, but they have more pressing worries at the moment---getting themselves and their planes and their friends back to base in one piece---and things they have to prove to themselves that aren’t all about race. The ace has to prove he can look out for people other than himself. The squad leader has to prove he can live up to expectations. The kid has to prove he’s not a kid. These are stock situations but they also happen to be realistic concerns individuals have had to face since forever, which leads into the next reason Red Tails is a better movie than it ought to be. Its cast.
Terrence Howard’s and Cuba Gooding’s names appear above the title on the poster, but they really have supporting roles and are there mainly to provide weight and solidity to characters who are really walking pieces of exposition. The true stars are the members of the ensemble of younger actors playing the pilots and groundscrew of the 332nd, especially Nate Parker as Easy, the self-doubting, secretly self-loathing squadron leader---Easy is a description of the smooth path he’s had through life, thanks to his father the judge. He is anything but easy in his mind and heart.---rapper Ne-Yo as the sleepy-eyed, slow-talking but wide-awake and wisecracking country boy, Smokey, Tristan Wilds as the kid desperate to shed his nickname, Junior, and replace it with one of his own devising, Ray Gun, and Andre Royo as the fussy, irritable, permanently worried, always complaining, and ultra-competent chief flight mechanic, Coffee as in, I think “Wake up, you goofballs, and smell the…”
But the real stand-out is David Oyelowo as the ace, Joe “Lightning” Little.
Oyelowo doesn’t exactly underplay a character who, a show-off himself, must have provided a temptation to show off. But he suggests more than he emphasizes Lightning’s confidence, reckless self-regard, and swagger and he uses his other subplot to inform Lightning’s transformation from cocky lone wolf to team leader. Lighting falls in love with a girl in the town near the 332nd’s Italian base. She doesn’t speak English, he doesn’t speak Italian, so he has to find a way not just to talk to her but let her know who he is and in order to do that he has to ask himself who he is, what kind of man he is, and what kind of man he needs to be to be worthy of her love. Junior needs to prove he’s not the kid others take him for, but it’s Lightning who needs to do the growing up. Oyelowo shows how that shakes him and humbles him and, ultimately, opens his eyes and his heart.
And, then, Red Tails is helped by being that kind of war movie. Producer George Lucas has said that in addition to wanting to tell the story of the 332nd he wanted to give a new generation the kind of rousing war movie he loved as a kid, a rip-roaring adventure yarn with heroes to cheer and villains to boo. And Red Tails delivers. Seeing it taken to the Nazis is always as fun and satisfying.
Finally, though, there are the planes themselves. P-51s and Me109’s were beautiful machines, handsome on the ground, gorgeous in flight. The dogfights in Red Tails may not be among the best ever filmed, but it’s still thrilling to watch the Mustangs and Messerschmitts swooping and diving and chasing each other through the skies.
When I was a twelve year old kid building model airplanes I assembled whole squadrons of P-38s, Hellcats, and Spitfires, but I don’t recall building a single P-51. I can’t explain that oversight. Maybe it was just the case that my local hobby shop never had one in stock when I showed up with my allowance burning a hole in my pocket. I wonder, though, if I’d ever bought one, if I’d have known to paint the tail red.
Do kids still build model airplanes? If they do, then I expect that whole squadrons of P-40s and P-51s are being put together and that the little pilots sitting bravely in the cockpits have had their faces painted brown.
Something important I have to note. There were a lot of little kids in the theater where we saw Red Tails and you’ll know what I mean when I tell you that this was not Newt Gingrich’s crowd. And the most thrilling and moving moment for me was when the final credits began to roll and these kids and their families broke into wild applause and cheers.
This is their story, Newt, not your disgusting whopper about the need for child janitors. Seventy years after the Tuskegee Airmen helped clear the skies over Europe, it’s shameful that you’re still asking your fellow Americans to prove themselves worthy in your pig-squinty little eyes.
Reportedly, Lucas had been trying for twenty-eight years to get Red Tails made. Got me thinking. If he’d been able to get it done ten years ago, it might very well have still starred Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding…as Easy and Lightning. Ten years before that Andre Braugher and Denzel Washington could have played the leads. And ten years before that Paul Winfield and Billy Dee Williams, with Sidney Poitier, of course, in Howard’s role as the Old Man.
Red Tails, directed by Anthony Hemingway, produced by George Lucas, starring Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, and Gerald McRaney. Now playing in theaters.