Red Tails is a resolutely old-fashioned look at an ignored piece of history but never digs too far beneath the surface…
Having George Lucas’ name attached to your movie (here as producer) stopped being a great advertisement a good few years ago, and I wish I could tell those intrigued by the worthwhile story of WWII Tuskegee airmen that the man responsible for alienating an army of his most dedicated fans had kept his paws off Red Tails. How much input Lucas really had on the finished film is unknown, but the worst aspects of his work are deeply embedded in this old-fashioned, feel-good blockbuster that skirts over history in a way that makes it seem thoroughly made-up.
The issues and events detailed here aren’t fictional, of course, as the main selling point of the film is the exploration of a criminally ignored part of WWII history. With racism deeply ingrained throughout all levels of the US army, a group of African-American men were trained for combat, soon overturning all of the cruel stereotypes and assumptions heaped upon them by their peers. The trouble is, with a subject so rich, interesting and potentially controversial, a deeper look was required, and Red Tails either can’t or doesn’t care to go any distance under the surface.
The characters are offered to us as nothing more than cheesy, likeable, universally good-natured chaps who rarely express any anger about their situation. There’s an underlying frustration about the lack of credit the pilots’ ability and bravery affords them, but the film seems frightened of making any of its charges seem less than perfectly moralistic and accepting as if the story would quickly unravel if they became recognisably human. It doesn’t help that many of the minor players are filled with actors ranging from music star Ne-Yo to 90210 star Tristan Wilds, who do nothing to shed preconceptions with their performances.
When we actually get up into the air, Red Tails improves somewhat as, even if the dog-fights and aerial camaraderie are obviously achieved via heavy (and intermittently shoddy) CGI, it’s much more exciting and motivated, recapturing the original point of the movie that is lost as soon as the pilots land. The conversations inside of the planes, whether harmless banter or the more perilous situations later on, are less successful however, as close-up shots inside of the cockpits never really shake the perception of green-screen and old-fashioned trickery.
Though the visual style, simplistic plot and hammy dialogue are jarring to a modern audience, there’s a lot to admire about the commitment Red Tails has to the period it’s exploring. Unless it’s entirely accidental, the film evokes feelings of classic 1940s cinema, where the style of this B-movie action-adventure would be less out of place. Lucas himself has spoken out about how unwilling the film industry was to fund a film starring an all-black cast, and this is a fact that adds flavour to a painfully bland effort.
Only Terrence Howard and David Oyelowo manage to fight through the crummy characterisation to apply a little depth. The scenes in which Howard’s character must fight for the existence of group are the film’s only convincing expeditions into the race relations of the time, as the inconsistencies with the rest of the cast’s dealings with white soldiers just about ruin the film’s carefully clawed credibility. The fascinating subject matter deserves better than what Red Tails can offer, and it’s a frustrating journey that only manages to skim the surface.