After 17 years, we now live in a world with two movies about the legendary — in reputation, not existence — air group, the Tuskegee Airmen. And, Red Tails, this year’s offering, took over 20 years just to get made.
George Lucas, who had always listed Red Tails as his “next” project as far back as 1988 (so since Willow), claims that he could never get a studio to back an almost entirely black cast in a World War II film. Meanwhile, Fox had no problem pouring an estimated $343 million into each successfully dismal Star Wars prequel. It took his own money to finally put a film on the big screen where these larger-then-life heroes belong.
Written by John Ridley (Undercover Brother and the most excellent Three Kings) and Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, Red Tails takes a very different storytelling path than the 1995 HBO TV movie, The Tuskegee Airmen. While Tuskegee used an ensemble cast — including Lawrence “Cowboy Larry” Fishburne, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, and John Lithgow — to focus more on the drama of racism in the 1940s and historical context, Red Tails was not hindered by small-screen and budgetary restraints.
Sidenote: Both movies cast Cuba Gooding, Jr., who received a promotion in the latter film to Major and second in command of the 332d. Terrence Howard received a similar promotion to Colonel and group leader, having played a Tuskegee Airman in 2002’s Hart’s War.
Instead, this is an action movie, written as a live-action comic book. This makes for an entertaining movie, but also provides much of the flak (heh) for critics because comic book writing means comic book dialog — which in this attempt is often hokey and melodramatic. Racism is still a central part of the plot, but Red Tails‘ comics sensibility means that this is often settled in the air with machine guns or in a barroom brawl.
This latter example leads directly to one of my own quibbles. When Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) finds himself unwelcome in a whites-only Officers’ Club, he punches out a white flyer who calls him a word beginning in “n” that doesn’t end in “egro.” Lightning is immediately swarmed by other white officers … and is next seen uninjured in a jail cell. At my most optimistic, I can only assume that either a) those white officers were all talk with their racism, or b) he was in that cell long enough to heal broken ribs.
The movie also under-delivers on a point of establishing pathos for a supporting cast member, Michael B. Jordan’s character Maurice Wilson. Maurice arrives at the air group late to find that his friends have all died and is jokingly chastised as bad luck and is then pretty much absent for at least an hour. His nose art helpfully identifies him at the beginning of the final battle as “Your pilot for today is Maurice,” to which the audience can only reply, “Who?” before (Spoiler Alert) he’s shot down by German jet fighters.
Red Tails succeeds in its visual effects, though. World War II aerial combat hasn’t looked this good since Return of the Jedi, which is precisely why I’ve eagerly awaited Lucasfilm’s production of this movie for so long. Even most of the classics of the genre like Memphis Belle deal almost entirely in static shots of bombers, and though strategic bombing was the key to aerial victory in WWII, it wouldn’t be possible without dynamic escort fighters. In this sense, Red Tails both completes this story and delivers it with acrobatics.
Another strength of this movie is its cast. David Oyelowo soars in his aforementioned role as hotshot Lightning, and his chemistry with Italian girl, Sofia (Daniela Ruah), is smoldering, even if the relationship is strangely unmarred by racism in an only recently post-Mussolini Italy. Nate Parker battles the bottle and leadership demands as Red Leader (a nod to Star Wars) Marty “Easy” Julian, and his friendship with Lightning is reminiscent of the best relationships where strife and contention can only make them better, stronger.
Likewise, the pairing of Andre Royo and Method Man as two enlisted mechanics who berate pilots for damaging their planes is often hilarious. The pilots joke about tattling on each other to Coffee (Royo), but there is genuine fear in their performances when they bring home battered equipment.
And relative newcomer (to acting, anyway, but he’s credited on the soundtracks of 30 productions) Ne-Yo eerily invokes John Witherspoon as Smoky when he flies wing for Lightning during a target-of-opportunity raid on a German Destroyer.
No Tuskegee Airman movie is complete without one thankless role, that of the Old White Racist with Power. In Tuskegee, it was John Lithgow, but in Red Tails, it’s Bryan Cranston who jumps on that grenade, blowing away all likeableness he normally exhibits to play desk Colonel William Mortamus. Mortamus is not only convinced that African Americans don’t belong in fighter planes, he releases confidential reports of the 332d’s combat records (they haven’t had any) and disciplinary actions to the press to pressure the War Department to dissolve the unit.
Unlike in Tuskegee, where Lithgow’s Senator Conyers is loathe to admit that he might have been wrong, there is no such contrition from Mortamus in Red Tails, who demands respect for his uniform in spite of his continued belief that blacks are inferior. It is similar thinking that delayed the production of a big budget war film with a mostly black cast (albeit for “economic” reasons); but it was perhaps fortuitous that it was finally released in an election year where candidates question the combat fitness of women and open homosexuals, and this makes Red Tails an important film of 2012.
Ultimately, Red Tails has its flaws, but it was worth the wait and makes a better comic book movie than, say, Thor or Green Lantern. I don’t get to say this very much anymore, but good job, George.