Film Review: Red Tails

A highly serviceable script, emotionally charged performances and Lucasfilm’s dazzling airborne dogfight sequences provide a great cinematic ride.

Filmgoers—thrill fans and the more serious and demanding—should fasten their seat belts or grip those theatre seats for Red Tails, a terrific, action-packed war story. Appeal to action fans (and gamers!) is the no-brainer. But more socially minded, politically sensitive audiences will also appreciate Red Tails’ attention to our country’s civil-rights struggle.
World War II is stamped as that war where good and evil were clearly delineated. But not quite “good” Americans in power during that era furthered our segregation policy of marginalizing African-Americans. “Good” did unexpectedly surface during the war with the country’s first all-black aerial combat unit, the Tuskegee airmen (or “flyboys”) in the Allied effort.

Writers, journalists and filmmakers have previously taken notice of the Tuskegee Program (e.g., the 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen), but executive producer George Lucas and his filmmaking colleagues, with Red Tails, give this worthy subject the big-screen treatment it deserves. Lucas reportedly funded the project, which he developed over 23 years.

As with Lucas’ blockbuster Star Wars series, Red Tails is foremost about entertaining, an accomplishment aced here that also deserves a helmets-off to vet TV director Anthony Hemingway, who makes his theatrical feature debut.

As a dramatic action movie of high quality and thrilling air battles, this war tale should cross racial lines to mainstream filmgoers eager for a blast of solid entertainment and sensational special effects. For the socially engaged, the film does not shrink from prejudices of the time.

But genre rules. As credits roll, Red Tails immediately kicks off and signals its high thrill quotient with ear-shattering, eye-popping dogfights and chases as the black pilot heroes take on Nazi planes and their armed supply train on the run. The key Tuskegee characters introduced are familiar but nuanced and well-played. The earthbound action (it’s 1944) largely unfolds at the airmen’s U.S. base in Italy, where pipe-smoking Major Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) oversees the Tuskegee group.

They most predominantly include daring, rule-spurning, gung-ho flyer Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) and his bunkmate/best buddy Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), the drink-prone, law-school-bound squadron leader with issues. Other Tuskegee men are young and religious Ray “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), Andrew “Smoky” Salem (Ne-Yo), Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) and Maurice “Bumps” Wilson (Michael B. Jordan). And, for a bit of levity plus down-to-earth bonhomie, there’s Tuskegee crew chief and mechanic Chief “Coffee” Coleman (Andre Royo), who tinkers with the planes’ innards like an expert, trusted surgeon.

In the nearby village, Lightning, after spying this beauty on a rooftop from his plane, courts Sofia (Daniela Ruah). Only her loving but clinging mother (Tina D'Marco) stands between a promising romance.

Also on terra firma are those in D.C.’s Pentagon, where Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) battles certain military powers-that-be, fueled by their own prejudices and a biased media that regard blacks as unfit to learn and serve. The military even saddles the Tuskegee airmen with old B40s (red cones, not tails) that, as the black fighters declare, are from “Uncle Sam’s junkyard.”

Such thinking has meant the Tuskegee men have been limited to chores of air cover—escorting and protecting white flyers on the critical missions they want. Eventually, Bullard, convincing his superiors that the black flyers are ready for real battle, gets the men better planes (those “red tails” of the title) and better assignments, especially a strategic action near crumbling Berlin.

Red Tails also veers into Great Escape/Stalag 17 country when young Ray Gun is shot down during an all-critical mission, captured and hauled off to a German prisoner camp where he participates in an escape. Will he make it? And what’s a war film without an iconic Nazi villain, who comes by way of a helmeted, chiseled Nazi commander pilot (Mark Doerr), seen several times as a menacing, tight-jawed adversary in his cockpit determined to destroy the good cause.

The film doesn’t skirt the prejudice the airmen endured, whether manifest at the whites-only airmen’s club or at the Pentagon. But wars were won in their midst once the airmen showed their skills aloft. Officer Chester Barnes (Robert Kazinsky) acknowledges them at the Officers’ Club with “drinks all around.” But not all the Tuskegee guys get through the horrific ordeal of combat.

The film’s real rewards are in the air, thanks to Lucas’ Skywalker Sound and team at Industrial Light & Magic who supervised seven visual-effects houses around the world.
Back on Earth, music of the era (big-band and pop vocal sounds and sexy propaganda voices aimed at homesick soldiers bleed through) and savvy location shooting in Italy, Croatia and Czechoslovakia create a realistic setting.

Although genres apart, Red Tails takes on an important real-world mission and fills a gap akin to another racially themed movie, The Help. The decisive role of these pilots is an equally important chapter in this country’s history of civil rights and racial oppression. Though many of its elements are familiar, Red Tails is a kinetically pummeling powerhouse that carries its own payload of appealing qualities.