Where you might’ve had Dr. Seuss books growing up as a kid, my children’s books were a little different. My parents, raised in the Jim Crow south and successful in life despite that, made it a point that their children would never feel inferior to anyone and that our only limitations were the ones we put on ourselves. Thus my children’s books consisted of John Henry, MLK, Malcolm X, Dr. Charles Drew, and of course The Tuskegee Airmen in addition to many other African American heroes. I did have Green Eggs and Ham in the bookcase but that little tome is actually a thinly disguised tale of a dealer and his potential user. Trust me on this. My point being that I’m pretty well versed on the lore of the Tuskegee Airmen and was curious to see how Anthony Hemmingway’s film ‘Red Tails’, famously produced by George Lucas, would enhance that knowledge. It didn’t. At all. It entertained me though, and I imagine in the final wash that’s what is probably most important when it comes to cinematic entertainment, right?
World War II is going strong when we drop in on the 332nd Fighting Group stationed in Italy, a squadron of Negro airmen trained at Tuskegee University, largely considered a social experiment by the U.S. Armed Forces. At this present time these airmen are safely tucked away from the major battles and are relegated to relatively harmless air to ground attacks, and they aren’t happy about it. Chief among these unhappy brothers is hotshot pilot Joe ‘Lighting’ Little (David Oyelowo). You know the guy… best pilot on the staff, but takes too many risks, is insubordinate, doesn’t play by the rules, chases skirts… A ‘Maverick’ of sorts. Lightning’s hubris usually comes at the expense of his squad leader and best friend Marty ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker) who is so stressed out by the war, Lightning, and his own crap life that he has taken to hitting the hooch. We were observing Easy and Lightning having an argument about how they deal with stuff, Lightning chasing skirts and Easy hitting the bottle. Lightning’s coping mechanism wins in a landslide.
Back in D.C. the commander of this group, one Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) is trying to get his boys into the action, but unfortunately some of the top brass at the Pentagon is seeing the 332nd as a failed experiment and wants it shut down. Col.
Bullard knows his squad can get the job done, but they need an opportunity. Good fortune smiles down upon Col. Bullard in the form of Lt. General Lutz (Gerald McRaney), who has noticed how fabulously the 332nd succeeded in the one mission they were given, and who needs some dedicated pilots to escort his bombers. The General needs discipline fighters who won’t run off looking for personal glory… uh… we know Lightning isn’t down for that… but they get the mission, some new planes adorned with fancy Red Tails and a legend is born.
There are other things going on of course, such as the young pilot who is captured behind enemy lines, the 332nd does suffer some losses from this war, this is 1942 so the occasional racial slur isn’t all that unexpected, and Lightning falls in love with a pretty Italian girl (Daniela Ruah). We’d like to see Lightning make it to the end of this movie so we sure hope this relationship isn’t too serious, otherwise the brother is doomed. Doomed I say! Spectacular dog fights and overwrought cliché will follow.
‘Red Tails’, as it turns out, is some high level entertainment. The ILM supplied special affects and aerial pyrotechnics were fantastic, the cast, led by a majestic Terrence Howard, a steady Cuba Gooding Jr. and a host of other young actors were rock solid, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that this is a very important film to an awful lot of people, and I don’t think ‘Red Tails’ let any of these people down in size, scope and grandeur.
Yet here I am to tell you that I’m a little disappointed in what I got out of ‘Red Tails’. Similar to the big guy in the backfield with all the muscles who tip toes through the line, it was kind of soft. I know, a football metaphor… seriously? This isn’t to say that any movie with Black people in it has to have some kind of message, in fact I look forward to the day when this grossly underrepresented group that I belong to is presented with regular movies depicting regular folks doing extraordinary stuff across all genres, like all other movies, but this movie right here was scripted by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. I don’t if that means anything to you, but that means an awful lot to me. This is a pair of writing talents so wickedly edgy, so deeply and immensely gifted and in possession of a razor wit sharper than the sharpest Ginsu, that I imagined a film written by these two gentlemen, directed by Anthony Hemmingway and supported by the financial clout of George Lucas to be something amazing. It was good, but it wasn’t amazing. But then perhaps I set my own expectations far too high.
The story elements were largely undercooked, the characters were heroic but largely one-dimensional… though there were hints that they weren’t initially designed to be that way… the story we did get followed a very familiar path and the struggle that we know that these men had to go through to achieve success was relegated to a perfunctory plot device with all of it playing second fiddle to the action.
And this is what ‘Red Tails’ is at its heart, that being an action film, and a darn good one at that. ‘Red Tails’ is a crowd pleasing winner. I honestly believe that. I was just expecting something a little tougher, a little harder edged, and a little more impactful. Ridley and McGruder. That’s like having Jim Brown and Barry Sanders in the same backfield. Seriously? Another football analogy? Seriously?