Executive Producer George Lucas
Story by John Ridley
Screenplay Written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder
Directed by Anthony Hemingway
*** ½ (three and a half stars)
In 1996, when I was 27 years old, I saw an awe-inspiring image, the likes of which I had never, ever seen before, in one of the unlikeliest of motion pictures, Roland Emmerich’s science-fiction action, disaster epic “Independence Day.” It was an action sequence set after the remarkable destruction of the White House and the first waves of the alien attack. In a desert, one alien fighter pilot is feverishly pursuing none other than African-American fighter pilot Will Smith. After some aerial derring-do and shootouts, Smith blasts the alien ship and both crafts crash land. A furious Smith eventually makes his way to the spacecraft, opens up the hatch and catches his first glimpse of the creature housed inside. With a roundhouse punch, Smith beats the alien unconscious and says with finality, “Welcome to Earth!” In all of my life of going to the movies and especially being weaned upon the incredible sights and sounds of the blockbuster films released during the summer movie season, never had I seen the sight of an African-American, male or female, in such command. Especially not to the degree that the focus of the entire film shifted to that African-American in particular. As “Independence Day” stretched onwards to its rousing climax, I was further thrilled beyond imagine that Will Smith’s character was never once relegated to the sidelines and that his actions were instrumental in the act of saving the world.
I mention this story because, again, in my lifetime of watching movies and being enthralled by superheroes, villains, explosions, chases, battles either hand to hand or interstellar, African-Americans were, and remain, in depressingly short supply. Even with my beloved “Star Wars” saga, as a child, I could always pretend to be Han Solo, and see Lando Calrissian help Han Solo but I would never see anyone that looked like me as Han Solo.
So, I applaud George Lucas’ “Red Tails,” a passion project inspired by the events and history of the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots, that has been in gestation for nearly a quarter of a century. As directed by veteran television filmmaker Anthony Hemingway (who has helmed episodes of the extraordinary HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme”) and written by veteran screenwriter John Ridley and “Boondocks” creator Aaron McGruder, Lucas’ visions of a rip-roaring, unapologetically old fashioned World War II action film, but featuring a nearly entirely African-American cast, has finally hit the big screen and I am very happy to tell you that I was enormously entertained. “Red Tails” is everything that Lucas proclaimed for it to be. It is as defiantly patriotic, flag waving and as heroic and even (or especially) as corny as an old John Wayne war movie, like “Sands Of Iwo Jima” (1949). But don’t let that wooden, clunky dialogue and those thin characterization fool you. Lucas, Hemingway, Ridley and McGruder all have something grander and even gently subversive in mind which made for an experience that rewarded me richly.
“Red Tails” opens in Italy 1944 as the 332nd Fighter Group of young African-American pilots are finally sent into aerial battle against the Germans. Unfortunately, this particular collective of pilots, deemed by the top brass as being unable and too unskilled to take on plane to plane combat despite the fact that the Tuskegee airmen have all successfully graduated from the training program, are commanded to remain in the background with worn out planes and exclusively search for enemy ground transport vehicles.
While the group’s overall morale is low, regarding any potential that they will one day be allowed to fully defend the United States Of America just like their Caucasian counterparts, their camaraderie to each other and to their country in steadfast and unshakable. Leading the team is Martin “Easy” Julien (Nate Parker), a closet alcoholic filled with a secret pain of self doubt and his best friend is the hotheaded, reckless Joe “Lightning” Little (an excellent David Oyelowo). The twosome are the yin-yang of a squadron that includes, and is not limited to, the eager Ray “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilde), the wise-guy Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley), the guitar playing Andrew “Smoky” Salem (Ne-Yo) and the newly arrived Maurice “Bumps” Wilson (Michael B. Jordan). The team is commanded by both the perpetually pipe smoking Major Emanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard), who constantly run up against the upper military bureaucracy who are still extremely resistant to accepting Black fighter pilots as equals.
At long last, the team is granted the opportunity to truly test their wings as part of Operation Shingle, where they will fly in support of the Allied landings. The team’s successful aerial engagement with German fighter pilots, led by the flying ace “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Reisen), affords them the chance to participate as bomber escorts. Acceptance for this request comes with Col. Bullard’s stipulation that the run down planes be permanently docked and replaced with the spanking new North American P-51 Mustang, the sleekest, fastest planes in the military. The top brass conceded and the team, now dubbed the “Red Tails” due to the red paint that adorns the tails of their planes are ready, more than ever, to defend and fight for their country down to the last man and the last bullet.
“Red Tails” is rousing, tremendously exciting entertainment from beginning to end. The film is filled with strong performances (especially from Nate Parker and David Oyelowo), and possesses a large amount of spectacularly staged, choreographed and executed aerial battle sequences that are visually stunning and from a special effects standpoint, completely fulfill the promise of “white-on white background” effects that Lucas pioneered with “The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Now, as about half of the two-hour film is set in the air, it would be very easy to dismiss the film as some critics have already by stating that the film soars when it is in the air but is stagnant whenever it is on the ground—kind of like Tony Scott’s “Top Gun” (1986). To that criticism, I fully disagree.
For now, I must turn my attention once again to Director Tate Taylor’s “The Help,” a film I have spent more than enough time expressing to you how much I hated. I promise not to go through all of my personal vitriol against that film all over again but for the purposes of discussing “Red Tails,” I feel it necessary. As I have previously stated, one of the majors reasons I found “The Help” so distasteful was that I felt the film was much too simplistic and facile considering its subject matter. I felt a much more uncomfortable experience was necessary for that particular story but the character were terribly thin, their motivations and feelings were painted in the broadest of strokes making for an experience I felt to be wholly false.
“Red Tails” shares many of the same qualities as “The Help” from its own broad strokes, the extremely simplistic and narrow swath of a deeply complicated story, fairly thin characters who voice clunky dialogue and cornpone sentiments from time to time. Yes, “Red Tails” has a near complete lack of subtlety and it is a film that is not nearly as complex, nuanced or especially as angry as it could have been or some feel that it needed to be. So, how and why could I champion this film and not “The Help,” you ask? Well, to me, while many of the qualities of both films are very similar, there is one major and extremely important contrast between the films. “The Help” is a presentation of the African-American experience almost exclusively through the eyes of a Caucasian while “Red Tails” is a presentation of the African-American experience seen through African-American eyes!
For all of the criticism Lucas shoulders regarding the characterizations and dialogue of his films, and yes the characters do stand out as archetypes rather than full, three-dimensional human beings, he is a masterful visual storyteller who almost always knows exactly the right image to use to make his grandest points. In “Red Tails,” the image of young, strong, intelligent and attractive African-Americans as patriotic fighter pilots, doing their parts to save the world from the likes of Adolf Hitler is unquestionably powerful. The image is everything you need for a film like this and from the image, we make the connections and the conclusions. Compare and contrast the images between “The Help” and “Red Tails” and the potential effect it could have not only within the African-American society but throughout the larger global society. In “The Help,” we see African-Americans as silently suffering, endlessly noble victims waiting to be saved by a white woman while in “Red Tails,” we see African-American actively defend their country. In “The Help,” African-Americans are sidelined within their own story while in “Red Tails,” African-Americans are the story.
And this is where I feel that “Red Tails” is a more and cleverly subversive film than it really lets on…and much more than film critics are giving it credit for. No, George Lucas is not Spike Lee and I would never imagine Lucas making a film in the fashion Lee creates his work. All of that being said, I think Lucas has accomplished something fairly remarkable. “Red Tails,” by being presented in the style of a classic war movie that would air on late night television somewhere, belies its actual importance. In some ways, it is as if Lucas is getting the messages to the masses by going through the back door instead of the front.
Yes, the issue of race is placed front and center throughout all of “Red Tails,” but since the characters of Easy, Lightning and their team are all presented in broad strokes, in a sense very naïve strokes, I would think that any audience member could possibly envision themselves in their shoes…like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. The film almost transcends race while firmly keeping the race and accomplishes and inequalities faced by the characters entirely as the focus. You are thinking of race while not thinking of race.
The war movie clichés also allow the history of the piece to go down smoothly. “Red Tails” never preaches to you but also creates a sensation that is fully designed to inspire one to want to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, their full history, struggles and of course, their victories. Therefore, “Red Tails” is a history lesson without feeling like a history lesson.
Lucas has also stated that he has wanted this film to serve as inspiration for teenage African-American boys and I found it fascinating that he has essentially created an experience that provides what African-Americans can aspire to be in the present and the future while viewing images of what African-Americans have already been.
And then there is the nature of the film itself as a big budget blockbuster experience. The great Roger Ebert, in his so-so review of the film, even questioned why Lucas had to make a big budget, blockbuster sized film of this material in the first place. To that, I answer: why not? This is yet another one of Lucas’ subversive moves as historically, big budget blockbuster motion pictures about the African American experience or featuring large African-American casts are simply not made. African-Americans can be in those movies of course. But, we cannot be those movies. We can be the sidekick but we cannot be the hero. We can serve the story but we cannot be the story. Lucas, in one big budget blockbuster swoop, straight from his own deep pockets no less, has upended that perception by funding the production and distribution of the film himself. Now that the film has been released and proven itself to be a hit film, I would be thrilled if the color of money would force the suits in Hollywood to give more African-American filmmakers a chance. Yes, Lucas is going to receive all of the credit and notoriety as his name is above the title. But, the fact that “Red Tails” carries an African-American director, producer, two screenwriters and a squadron of talented, skilled actors all ready to work, I would hope would bode well for an ushering of more African American creative talents to helm a wider variety of films from big budget blockbusters to independent films to everything else in between.
Certainly, that is a lot of responsibility for one film to carry and I concede that it is unfair for “Red Tails” to shoulder that level of responsibility. But, I have to say that as it stands, “Red Tails” was enormously entertaining and I would see it again in a heartbeat. The collective of actors bring soul, spirit and humanity to the well-worn clichés and make them seem fresh again. The collective of actors coalesce so strongly that the ease they share with each other is obvious and our affection goes out to them instantly. Crucially, the friendship and tension between Easy and Lightning gave the film a pure and grounded emotional core. And I even found myself surprisingly affected by the film’s love story between the Lightning and Sofia (Daniela Ruah), a young Italian woman who astonishingly and improbably captures Lightning’s eye as he sails overhead, fresh from his latest flying victory.
Most importantly, I was inspired and so very thankful that I could finally see a film of this size and scope, filled from one end to the other with people who look like me firmly placed, literally and figuratively in the pilot’s seat.