As their white counterparts wage war with the Nazis over the skies of Europe, the Tuskegee Airmen wait patiently in the wings. Uncle Sam, however, apparently sees them as something of a nuisance and would have them permanently sidelined as World War II rages on. However, this particular band of brothers flat out refuses to let their talents wither and die on the vine. With the help of powerful allies in the upper ranks of the military, the airmen eventually earn the right to fight and possibly die for a country that hardly values such a noble sacrifice.
Supposedly having finally put Star Wars behind him, George Lucas can now focus on his other enthusiasms. Red Tails has the distinction of being the first Lucasfilm release in 19 years that isn’t related to either Star Wars or Indiana Jones. After 24 years in development Hell, it’s finally ready for exhibition. The shadow of the well-received HBO original film The Tuskegee Airmen looms ominously overhead like a dark cloud. Red Tails looks to distinguish itself from made-for-cable competition by offering pulpier and more thrilling take on the material.
As has been well documented, Lucas is largely responsible for the various forms of baby boomer nostalgia that dominated pop culture in last quarter of the 20th century. Red Tails continues down that same path, albeit without the unflagging energy of the original Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. WWII as imagined by Lucasfilm is a dreamland of heroic daring-do and mustache twirling villains. Despite such dated touches, Red Tails falls right in line with the kind of ultra-serious Black military dramas that have become common since A Soldier’s Story. That’s not to say it attempts the same level of depth and resonance, only that it plays everything very straight faced.
The cast of characters featured here mainly function as stock character types, defined entirely by personality traits and physical ticks. Ne-Yo plays Andrew "Smoky" Salem as a snuff chewing hick. He comes off as more of a cartoon than an actual human being. Terrence Howard’s usual shaky voiced shtick serves him well here, though he isn’t asked to do anything outside of his particular skillset. A bit of House Negro vs. Field Negro tension is allowed to play out between David Oyelowo and Nate Parker, but it’s mostly shown as an occasional flare up in their otherwise close friendship.
The film mostly treats the adversity faced by the airmen as fodder for a story about a group of scrappy outsiders looking to prove themselves to the powers that be. Racial confrontations are handled in a superficial manner. The indignities that were suffered by the airmen in real life probably ran deeper and darker than anything Red Tails would be willing to show. To the films credit, the characters are never passive victims, even when attempting to build bridges with the otherwise antagonistic white fighter pilots. The film has no pretensions about itself, though a much more substantial entertainment clearly could have been crafted from this material.
Convert the galactic dogfights in Star Wars to the skies of WWII Europe, and you have an idea of how the air combat in Red Tails plays out. Fighters slip in and out of tight squeezes like thread through a needles eye. In some instances, they charge headlong into the camera itself with guns blazing. The film’s opening titles evoke the sensibilities at work. This is an old war comic come to life, or perhaps even a pulp novel. It’s all rather quaint, but not offensively so.
Red Tails populates the same cinematic universe as Indiana Jones save for the latter’s supernatural elements. However, even Indy’s outings showed a bit more willingness to explore the dark side. To be fair, Lucas never had such intentions for Red Tails. Unlike his playmate Steven Spielberg, he sought not to make the grittiest and most harrowing war film imaginable. He opted instead to make the kind of film that he would’ve liked as a boy. While that might not be in line with modern tastes, in its own way it’s sort of fitting. Though I would have preferred something more along the lines of Spielberg’s approach, I have a bit of affection for the lighthearted, cornball sentiments of Red Tails.