Review: “Red Tails”
Produced by: Rick McCallum, Chas. Floyd Johnson, Ales Komárek (co-producer), George Lucas (executive producer)
Written by: John Ridley, Aaron McGruder (screenplay), John Ridley (story)
Cinematography by: John Aaronson
Music by: Terence Blanchard
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Tristan Wilds, Kevin Phillips, Marcus T. Paulk, Michael B. Jordan, Daniela Ruah, Bryan Cranston, Ryan Early, Lars van Riesen, Method Man
I’m going to preface this review with a disclaimer: I know very little about the actual history behind this film’s story and setting. I blame it on my education. (Doesn’t everyone?) I had heard about the Tuskegee Airmen before, of course, but most of the time, they were a footnote or, at best, one of those little side panels in my history books, sidelined with a photo or two and a few facts listed, undoubtedly being an answer to a question that nobody would remember. Even in college, where we were expected to be more enlightened, we glossed over the subject entirely, with maybe a one-sentence mention thrown in for good measure.
The Tuskegee Airmen in my life have been a largely recognizable yet fully unrealized aspect of American and even world history. As someone raised in a partly Asian household (I’m 1/4 Korean), I guess I can sort of relate to the lack of attention, as I once asked in middle school why we always studied Western Civilization and never the East. I remember being promptly told, “Because the East didn’t really contribute much to world history.” I do remember “noodles” coming instantly to mind at the time, but I didn’t say anything and sat in quiet resignation. In hindsight, that was probably for the best, lest I further any sort of stereotype in her mind.
But it wasn’t even until the release of this film that I realized how ignorant I was of the subject. My roommate, who was far more familiar with it, was somewhat looking forward to Red Tails. At least, that was my impression. Cautious optimism. The only caveat? It was being financed and produced by George Lucas, who also apparently oversaw re-shoots for the finished film. Now, since this was unrelated to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and thanks to the fact that he wasn’t exactly directing or even writing the film, there was a good chance that it very well could be good. … Right?
For Lucas, this was a passion project, and he made a great commotion over how difficult it was for him to sell this film to studios, who apparently told him that they couldn’t market a film with an all-black cast, even if the story itself could have a universal appeal. It’s commendable, then, that he financed Red Tails with his own money and through his own production company, Lucasfilm, promising to finally tell the story of these brave men in a mass-marketed theatrical film, with or without studio help.
Now, don’t get me wrong on this — even though I’m admittedly quite ignorant of the subject, I knew that this movie wasn’t going to be 100% accurate historically, and so I wasn’t expecting to get a history lesson as a result. What historical drama could you expect that from, anyway? You can only expect so much from a few hours, after all. What I did expect, however was to get a kind of generalized or condensed account of the hardships these men faced as they struggled with discrimination, rose to the top, and then celebrated their personal triumphs and accomplishments on the grander scale of the entire war, maybe as siphoned through the experiences of two or maybe even three individuals to keep things taught.
Unfortunately, instead of being anything like that, Red Tails is content to throw nicely rendered but ultimately boring aerial combat scenes at audiences’ faces, interspersed with meaningless and hollow scenes of exposition showing how close the pilots are and how bigoted the white characters are. The script is dull and lacking in energy at best, and at its worst, it’s downright idiotic and patronizing, reminiscent but somehow worse than some of the dialogue in the Star Wars prequels.
If you want a good frame of reference for just how bad the script and delivery can get, look no further than when the pilots are sent up to defend the bombers from German planes. While the Red Tails themselves get a bit more emphatic in their line delivery, the extras playing the white bomber pilots are a hoot, delivering their lines with the enthusiasm and authenticity of second graders in a school play, only with swears:
Pilot 1: “Red tails? I don’t recognize the markings. It’s a colored!”
Pilot 2: “Yeah right!”
Pilot 1: “No, I’m not joking. Look!”
Pilot 2: “Jeeee-sus Christ. They can’t all be colored. One fighter group of all Negro pilots? I don’t believe it!”
Pilot 1: “What the hell do we do?!”
…Pilot 2: “Look at that. Those Red Tails are staying put.”
Pilot 1: “Giving up the glory to save our asses!” …”We didn’t lose a single plane!”
Pilot 2: “Well that’s a first.” … “I hope we meet up with those Red Tails next time.”
Trust me, as bad as it sounds in print, it’s even worse on screen. This is pretty much the extent of the film’s aptitude at showing the shifting attitudes towards the black pilots, who we are told were considered to be incapable of engaging in combat, and there’s very little sense of how much time has passed as their fame goes on the rise, leading to the development feeling rushed and even more artificial than it already was. Something tells me that George Lucas had a bit more of a “creative” hand in this film than some uncredited reshoots.
I wish that I could say that the main cast fairs any better, but other than getting somewhat better dialogue than their white counterparts, no one in the film really puts anything worth bragging about on screen. This isn’t entirely their fault, however, as most of the numerous characters are hardly developed beyond their character types. You have your pipe-chomping Maj. Emanuel Stance, your ace flyboy Lt. Joe “Lightning” Little, the young and eager Ray “Ray Gun” Gannon (a.k.a. “Junior”), the man behind the scenes dealing with white bureaucrats Col. A.J. Bullard, the alcoholic group leader fighting his inner demons in Martin “Easy” Julian and… well, to be honest they do all start to blend together after that point. Except for the German fighter pilot they nickname “Pretty Boy,” who serves as the film’s Red Baron. His lines, spoken in German, are never subtitled, but they sound angry, so I assume it’s something evil and possibly very racist.
The storylines for these characters feel like subplots attempting to form a greater whole. There’s very little development, however, because there are just way too many characters the film tries to focus on. For example, what does Lightning’s random romance with an Italian girl he randomly spots on a flyby and tracks down have to do with the rest of the film? Nothing, except to be a forced romance between two people who don’t speak the same language. Or how about the fruitless POW sideshow that ends in one of the most eye-roll-worthy conclusions I’ve ever seen? Intrigue… I guess. And then there’s not one, but two scenes where pilots are bleeding in their cockpits and attempt to hang on to life as friends tell them repeatedly, “Stay with me!” When one character says to another, “That was a crazy move! You almost got yourself killed!” and he responds back, “… I think I… did get myself killed,” there’s more comedy there than tragedy.
I did say that the battles were nicely rendered, and, for the most part, that is true. Lucas was strongly influenced by the dogfights in the silent film Wings for the Star Wars saga, and that influence is even more strongly felt here in Red Tails. Thanks to the heavy use of glossy CGI, however, they don’t really achieve the same level of excitement or realism. The same heavy use of green screen that plagued the Star Wars prequels is employed here, and the film often feels more like a sci-fi adventure with gee-whiz thrills than it does a realistic historical drama as a result. Terence Blanchard’s score seems to be all over the place, as well, overbearing with heroic themes and underscoring the terrible melodrama while randomly introducing bizarre and anachronistic elements, such as heavily distorted electric guitars, drum machines, and synthesizers. The employment of “America the Beautiful” at the very end feels even more cornball than it did at the end of Ralph Wiggum’s performance as George Washington on The Simpsons.
This is just a terrible all around film with a bad script, bad performances, bad editing, bad everything, and the fact that it took 23 years of pitching, developing, and making this movie to end up with something so awful should be embarrassing to all parties involved. The studios may think that there’s no profit to be had in marketing a war film with a mostly-black cast, but there’s little doubt that the Tuskegee Airmen have a story that deserves to be told in a quality theatrical film. This, however, is most definitely not that film.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 0.5 / 5