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The experience of black American aviators in World War II gets a whitewash in Red Tails. The story of the 996 pilots (and some 15,000 ground personnel) who distinguished themselves in the air in the face of institutional racism is a great one and, at least, will come to the attention of more people due to this long-gestating project from Lucasfilm. But every character here is so squeaky-clean, and the prejudice as depicted is so toothless and easily overcome, that the film feels like a gingerly fantasy version of what, in real life, was an exceptional example of resilient trail-blazing. The tale’s considerable built-in inspirational value will move and impress black audiences of all ages and would do the same to a wider public if sufficiently promoted, but the determinedly simplistic approach will curtail interest among any viewers hungry for some real history. The anticipated low interest level for this material overseas is cited as a major reason the project took so long to get off the ground.
A key signal of how much you can trust any contemporary movie about either of the 20th century’s world wars is how, and even if, it depicts smoking; if, like this one, it buckles to current fashion and scarcely depicts soldiers smoking at all in a period when cigarettes were part of ration kits, then it’s frankly not to be trusted in any other respect either. Here, Cuba Gooding Jr.‘s major sucks thoughtfully on a pipe and one hotshot pilot sports a stogie in one scene, but otherwise the environs are as smoke-free as the Brigham Young University campus.
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Showing its action-slanted hand at the outset, two pilots in P-40 fighters, “Easy” (everyone has a nickname like that) and “Lightning,” make quick work of a German munitions train in Italy. Right away, the film plays fast and loose with period by enabling their buddies back at the base to watch footage of the explosive strike, as if every plane were equipped with a camera that could provide nightly ESPN-style highlights. Talk about kowtowing to a younger generation that supposedly requires instantaneous and repeated gratification.
“Easy” (Nate Parker) is the flight leader whose secret vice is the bottle, while “Lightning” (David Oyelowo) is his fearless wingman who also has the brass to court a warm signorina (Daniela Ruah) from the nearby picture-postcard village. At this stage of the conflict, in the summer of 1944, the all-Negro 99th Fighter Squadron remains far from the center of action, restricted to “mopping floors” in the battle against fascism while the men are ready and eager for real missions.
The problem lies, specifically, at the just-built Pentagon and, of course, with society at large, neither of which is ready to accept blacks on an equal footing with whites. The military, as with so much else, is strictly segregated and a line or two of dialogue make the point that the common assumption is that blacks simply aren’t up to the demanding job of combat aviation.
Throughout the film, however, all opposition to the universally sympathetic protagonists falls like so many bowling pins. The first time one of the fliers ventures into the whites-only officers’ club in Italy, he slugs a guy who calls him the n-word and remarkably isn’t court-martialed; the next time, a bunch of the squadron members are invited in with drinks all around. Later, when bomber crews notice their new escorts are “colored,” they express startled dismay, but after one successful run, one young flier exclaims, “I hope we meet up with those Red Tails next time!” No relentless and unrepentant redneck characters played by James Woods in this film. And when a Nazi fighter pilot disdains his “African” opponent, you know he’ll be biting the dust in short order.
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And so it goes in a a script that doesn’t begin to show what these young men were really up against and how patient and stoic they had to be in the face of so much resistance. Screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder neglect, or perhaps assume too much common knowledge of, the key component of struggle at the heart of all social drama. There are no difficulties at all in the romantic subplot, as Lightning’s inamorata is smiley and sweetly compliant at all times; the squadron’s Washington-based representative (Terrence Howard) negotiates pretty successfully on its behalf against dubious superiors and the men themselves are all strictly one-dimensional, without the sorts of characterizing details or personal demons that were commonly found among the men who populated even routine WWII films at the time. Beyond that, there’s far too little sense of sacrifice, of something profoundly meaningful earned at significant cost.
But perhaps George Lucas, who reportedly developed this project for 23 years, always saw this as an uncomplicated and uncomplex action film and, in this regard, at least, the results are pretty good. Just a few years ago, the technology would not have produced the sort of vivid and realistic renditions of airborne warfare that visual effects supervisor Craig Hammock has commandeered here. The planes (most impressively the glistening silver B-17 bombers), the firepower, the crashes and all the pyrotechnics look pretty darn real; we’re past the time when, as in “The Battle of Britain” or “The Memphis Belle,” all the world’s air-worthy vintage warplanes had to be collected and sent aloft one more time for the purposes of restaging dogfights and bombing raids. The hits made by the Red Tails, so named for the paint jobs applied to the rear ends of the hot new P-51s, seem too easily achieved at times, but the aerial footage is pretty cool throughout. The most explosive sequence is a raid on a German airbase that goes down as one of the squadron’s most notable successes.
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Gooding, who appeared in The Tuskegee Airmen, the 1995 TV film on the same subject, postures through his role here as a major required to keep his men inspired and focused, while Howard can never relax from his part’s uniform-bound official functions. Like his character, Oyelowo has by far the best time here as a flier whose recklessness is surpassed only by his cockiness. The rest make momentary impressions but should have been supplied by the writers and debuting director Anthony Hemingway (whose TV credits include The Wire and Treme) with more personalizing traits, backstories and idiosyncracies.
In the end, it’s the flashy action and innate inspirational elements that make a measure of impact here. But you just know there’s so much more to this story.
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