George Lucas first conceived the idea of Red Tails in 1988 – and although he began to develop the feature then, the esteemed film maker decided to shelve the project for a later date, and finally, 23 years on, Red Tails is ready to hit our screens, although in hindsight, one can’t help but feel that the idea may have been of more benefit had it simply remained on the shelf.
Based on real events – featuring the African American Tuskegee airmen of the second World War – we follow a crew of fighter pilots who are victims of segregation and racial abuse as, despite possessing quite sublime natural ability when in battle, due to the colour of their skin are always struggling to be treated with the respect they deserve, and are not entrusted with the more dangerous and important missions, of which they are certainly more than capable.
Thanks to the persistence of Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and the guidance of Major Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the crew grasp every opportunity they are given with both hands, proving themselves to be some of the best fliers available, working as invaluable protectors to the Caucasian airmen. Soldiers such as the affectionately named Easy (Nate Parker), Lightning (David Oyelowo) and Junior (Tristan Wilds) continuously seek in proving their doubters wrong as they not only aim to win the war, but also the respect of their compatriots, who are somewhat sceptical of their abilities to fly.
Directed by Anthony Hemingway in what is his début feature film – Red Tails begins quite amateurishly, in a badly constructed opening scene, with title credits that look as though they have been implemented at the very last minute by the work experience kid, who has only just come to terms with Final Cut. However, despite the fact the film does pick up as it goes along – it is a feature that is quite an easy target for cynicism – highlighted in that the planes the African Americans are flying seem to be covered in an unconquerable shield, as at points it appears that absolutely nothing seems to get through.
The action sequences are generally not gripping enough either. Due to the lack of acting credentials on show and the fact that the budget is so vast, the very least you would hope for is that the battle scenes will look the part, but sadly this isn’t the case at all. You hope, and almost expect, that the action will act as a saving grace, but the effects aren’t very impressive and these sequences are negated by a contrived attempt at joviality in the form of banter between the pilots. Red Tails is acting as a depiction of a brave group of men risking their lives for their nation and their equality, yet they appear to spend more time jokingly bickering amongst each other.
The most impressive and enjoyable scenes actually take place on the ground, in the camp where the soldiers are staying. The pilots all carry very big personalities and the relationship between Easy and Lightning is endearing, as two friends who, despite being both charming and popular, are both carrying their own personal issues that they must overcome – the latter’s in a form of a woman, whilst the former has an unhealthy inclination towards alcohol.
Both Parker and Oyelowo also prove to be two of the better performers in the cast, although standing out isn’t the most difficult task, as they are measured against quite lacklustre performances surrounding them, with Ne-Yo and Andre Royo the prime culprits. Red Tails is also lacking in having one true protagonist – the feature is crying out for someone that the audience can grow to love, someone with a back story that we can follow through the action, desperately hoping for their safety. Instead we have four or five leading soldiers that we struggle to really connect with as we know so little about them.
Ultimately Red Tails is a disappointing feature, as despite delving into a fascinating period of time and an inspiring story of people who are determined to succeed in the face of adversity, it just feels too cinematic and overstated, with too many comedic aspects littered across what is effectively a quite harsh and shameful set of events.
Apparently the stories of the Tuskegee airmen are barely touched upon within academic teaching in the United States, therefore giving Hemingway’s film an important responsibility to tell this tale with honesty and conviction. But I’d suggest that anyone who wishes to educate themselves in this subject, should take a trip to their local library and take a book out instead.