George Lucas produced this low-flying CG ode to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Finally emerging on these shores after filming wrapped in 2009, troubled World War II epic Red Tails offers a fictionalised portrayal of the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American US Army Air Force soldiers who battled skepticism borne of racial bigotry to win nearly 100 distinguished flying crosses.
Frustrated at Hollywood’s reported reticence to finance an all-black movie, executive producer George Lucas funded the film with $58m of his own money. So, with such a noble cause and an important story at stake, it would be delightful to report a success. Sadly, the harsh truth is that Red Tails is mishandled in almost every single respect, from its flat, shoddily CGI’d combat scenes, to its corny dialogue and almost total avoidance of broader historical context.
Director Anthony Hemingway (later replaced by Lucas in reshoots) has adopted an unashamedly old-fashioned, '40s/'50s war movie style to tell the story. It’s an approach which doesn’t necessarily have to preclude quality, but the gung-ho vibe combined with incessant recourse to bewildering narrative shortcuts scorch the film of nuance.
Meanwhile, composer Terence Blanchard – normally so impressive in his mournful scoring for the films of Spike Lee – seems to have prepared for his work here by gorging on a diet of old episodes of seaQuest DSV and MacGyver. His music is intrusive and wildly overblown.
Worse still, Red Tails flaunts a frustratingly picture-book version of history, in which racism is located individually (see Bryan Cranston’s scowling cardboard villain), rather than institutionally. The way this film would have it, the airmen not only entirely changed perceptions of African-Americans within the military, but pretty much defeated racism altogether so that a united America could attack the world as one.
Furthermore, the film’s concession to socio-political fantasy is made less palatable by an insidiously conservative accommodationist agenda and a sneeringly glib attitude towards war in general. The level of debate here never rises above "good guys" vs. "bad guys".
In terms of positives, a strong cast - including the lesser spotted Cuba Gooding Jr. permanently chomping on a cigar – do their level best with a tortuously cheesy script comprised almost exclusively of clichés, homilies and aphorisms. There’s a sweet love story between the charismatic Joe "Lightning" Little (impressive Brit David Oyelowo) and an Italian woman which, though apparently lifted straight from Spike Lee’s superior, superficially similar Miracle At St. Anna, offers a welcome, subtle change of pace from all the fighting and shouting. The best scenes by far are the ones in which the soldiers simply hang out with each other, though their conflicts are also largely rooted in the personal rather than anything approaching the political.
There’s a tough dilemma at the heart of the act of responding to this film: should we be simply happy that this important story is being highlighted for a mass audience, or dismayed that it’s been handled so badly? There’s room for both emotions, but it’s little short of a tragedy – and an indictment of Hollywood’s racial mores – that a film this poor had to fight so hard to get made.
An important story that’s been a long time coming (well, since the Laurence Fishburne TV movie in 1995, anyway).
Corny, simplistic and dull.
Disappointment gives way to frustration at this botched opportunity to tell an important story properly.