Before I go into the review, I want to make it a point to urge you to go out and see Red Tails. It’s not often that you get a Lucasfilms property that isn’t Star Wars or Indiana Jones. It also isn’t often that you get an action film consisting of a predominantly African American cast (and the amazing Bryan Cranston as a condescending racist). This is a film that Lucas has been trying to get made for the past 30 years, only to repeatedly get turned down because the studios said that there is no money to be made from such a film. People don’t want to see the black flying aces of World War II. Unfortunately, the opening weekend box office seems to suggest there is some truth in that – as of now it’s made roughly one-third of it’s $58M budget. I don’t want it to be true. The failure of this film vindicates every studio for casting few African Americans in leading roles and not providing much publicity for any film that casts black people as anything more than a joker, thug, magical negro, overweight loudmouth, etc. I have to admit, I already blame 20th Centure Fox for shortcomings in advertising, as I did not see any advertising aside from a stand at the local movie theatre.
I must also state that a tight knot formed in my stomach when the trailer for Tyler Perry’s latest movie played right before Red Tails. No matter the quality of the film, his will be profitable because his audience attends like good little drones. If we were presented with Tyler Perry presents: Red Tails, I wouldn’t have to implore you to see the film (or buy a ticket and not go – just an option). I’d have to worry about your being fed the horrible reinforcement of black stereotypes for the sake of obnoxious humor. But Tyler Perry’s ruination of black people in the media is neither here nor there. It’s just a fact of life.
Red Tails is an enjoyable retelling of the trials and tribulations of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black (at the time it was appropriate to say “all-Negro”) fighter squadron. During World War II they were, at least according to the movie, considered an experiment in the military. Since they were considered both of lesser importance and caliber, they were relegated to clean-up missions and strikes on ground-based targets. Without scoring any aerial kills, they were an unproven unit. Of course, when given the opportunity they proved themselves to be one of the best fighter squadrons in all of the military.
What makes the movie work for me is that the first act tells the story on two fronts: the pilots stationed in Italy, and the officers at the Pentagon. Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s Major Stance pushes the pilots to fly intelligently and wait for their opportunity while Terrance Howard’s Colonel Bullard argues with officers of higher ranks to give his men a chance to prove exactly how effective they are. When the two prominent actors start sharing screen time together, you know the story is heading toward tension and accomplishment.
And the film is an accomplishment. George Lucas based his dogfights in Star Wars on the dogfights from WWII reels. Using the superior technology that gave us the space battles in the prequel trilogy – and please dismiss your opinions about those films as a whole when merely discussing the tech – his company was able to reproduce those inspirational reels in both a thrilling and fun manner. As a fan of the Ace Combat game series, I appreciated that the film gave me reason to return to the games. I need to see if I can make some of those maneuvers work.
The premise is strong and the action sequences are strong, but Red Tails unfortunately is incredibly weak in terms of its characters. I had to look up Gooding, Jr.’s and Howard’s characters’ names because there are so many characters that it gets hard to differentiate them beyond character traits. Not only do we have the two commanding officers, but we have a large portion of the airmen’s squadron, their mechanics, and even an Italian love interest. Learning the call signs of the various pilots simplifies matters to some degree, but then anyone who only goes by a real name is hard to identify.
The other problem with having too many characters is that character development barely exists. Most of the development exists in superficial and predictable arcs. Easy, our squadron leader, is an alcoholic at the beginning of the film. Guess what happens to him. Lightning is the smart mouthed ace pilot who falls for and eventually becomes engaged to an Italian lady. Guess what happens there. Junior wants more than anything to be given the call sign of Ray gun because he is an adult dammit, despite carrying around a Buck Rogers ray gun for good luck. Even at two hours of running time, there wasn’t enough time to give the characters enough focus, so I can understand why they settled for the tropes. Fortunately, cliches aren’t bad. Especially the less you try to think about them.
I have to make it a point to say I was surprised that The Boondocks‘ creator Aaron McGruder was involved in punching up the dialogue on the film. I always assumed his voice was distinctive, but it just wasn’t there. No one is snappy enough, and nothing struck me as the smart commentary he usually delivers through his characters. One of the most effective lines in the movie is when a white officer in a bar clarifies that one of our leads is not wanted there by calling him a nigger. Surprisingly, that is the only occurrence of the word in the whole movie. Another effective line is a discussion of why the word “colored” doesn’t make sense. It goes something like this: “When you’re mad you turn red. When you’re scared you turn yellow. When you’re jealous, you turn green. And you think you can call us colored?”
The worst line of dialogue happens at one of the most poignant parts of the movie, which makes it stand out more than it should have. It was established early on that the military was having trouble keeping bombers in the sky because any accompanying squadron of fighter planes would skirt off to fight the first enemy fighters they could see, since kills equal glory. The turning point for the Tuskegee Airmen is when they are offered the opportunity to accompany a bomber squadron, and they are explicitly ordered to ditch gunning for the glory of enemy kills in order to actually protect the bombers. When it happens, one of the pilots of the bombers says, “I can’t believe it. They’re giving up the glory just to save our asses.” As if we, the audience, couldn’t figure that out on our own.
I can’t believe I have to end the review like this, especially since the film was directed by Anthony Hemingway and not George Lucas (save for re-shoots), but I guess you could say it’s just another George Lucas film. Exciting action and interesting premise meets with disappointing characterization and dialogue. I am an ardent supporter of George Lucas, so this isn’t a problem to me. It’s a fun film and well worth the price of admission. Plus we need to do what we can to help the diversification of film. After all, this film didn’t just have an all-black cast. The director, score composer, screenplay writer, and screen-play punch-up writer are also African American.
But what the poor reviews and box office ultimately tell us is that our culture doesn’t seem to want that. Poor reviews are fine, as poorly reviewed movies often do well in the theatre. After one weekend, no one is worried about Underworld: Awakening because it’s already made back approximately 57% of its budget. No, the poor box office is worrisome. People choose to go to movies based on trailers and word-of-mouth. I didn’t see any trailers or commercials for Red Tails, and few people are talking about it outside of reviews. This just means that people aren’t interested. And that’s sad because I don’t want the big studios to be right. Why doesn’t the audience want to see movies about heroic black men?