Review: Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails, executive producer George Lucas’s long-planned film about the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, received mostly negative reviews when it was released last January (it currently scores a lousy 39% on Rotten Tomatoes). Many of the criticisms are valid: the story is somewhat hokey, the dialogue often corny, the delivery sometimes wooden, and the style unapologetically mainstream. One of the chief complaints, however—that the film’s subject matter necessitates a serious, even gritty, film—seems to miss Lucas and company’s intentions. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American U.S. military pilots, and despite the racial discrimination they faced within the armed forces, they went on to fly an extraordinary number of successful bomber escort missions. Many critics seem to believe that a film about this important historical subject should only be cast in the mould of a Glory (1989) or a Saving Private Ryan (1998). And Red Tails is definitely not Glory or Saving Private Ryan. But that’s the whole point.

Despite the fact that most people chiefly remember Denzel Washington in Glory, Matthew Broderick’s Colonel Robert Gould Shaw is the film’s actual protagonist. In Red Tails, the story of a pioneering group of African-American servicemen is not mediated to the audience through a white man’s eyes. In fact, the most prominent white characters in the film are the bigoted Col. William Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) and the evil Nazi flying ace, both villains.

That’s not to say that the film is preoccupied only with issues of race. The discrimination the pilots face and overcome is central, but so are the bonds between the men, especially between the secretly alcoholic flight leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and the cocky Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo). Moreover, a significant chunk of the film takes place in the air, and the aerial combat is exciting rather than shocking realistic like the battles in Saving Private Ryan. This kind of action makes you want to cheer, not lament. Director Anthony Hemingway has clearly studied Lucas’s dogfights in the original Star Wars.

Red Tails is an act of revision to cinematic history. Red Tails is the rousing, patriotic, and, yes, cornball WWII movie with an all-black cast that Hollywood never made in the 1940s or 50s. From the uncomplicated narrative, to the contrived banter, to the exaggerated drama, to the evil Nazi pilot with a scar on his face, the film resembles classical Hollywood war movies.

It is the light use or lack of irony that differentiates Lucas’s cinematic borrowings from those of, say, Tarantino. Django Unchained repeatedly acknowledges itself as a film, drawing attention to its explosion of cinematic representations of the genteel, chivalrous American South. Red Tails is not ironic. The film does not draw significant attention to its use of war movie clichés. Hemingway and his crew want nothing more than to draw the viewer in to this compelling story—to entertain and move the audience in the old Hollywood way—but the film’s stylistic and referential effacement seems to have not succeeded in today’s film marketplace. Red Tails’ total lack of irony may actually distance, not engage, the contemporary viewer.

Everyone agrees that the story of the Tuskegee Airmen is important to tell, but not everyone agrees with how best to tell it. That’s too bad. Red Tails is worth seeing.

7 out of 10

Red Tails (USA, 2012)

Directed by Anthony Hemingway; screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder; starring Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Bryan Cranston, Terrence Howard, and Cuba Gooding Jr.