"Red Tails" is an advertisement for the skill of black American pilots made about 40 years too late.
There certainly was a time where a film like this could have been persuasive to some audiences and invigorating for others. Now, you’ll have difficulty finding white moviegoers unconvinced that their black countrymen can fight as well as anyone else, and black audiences have seen actors from Denzel Washington and Will Smith play the hero for years.
As a film with the clear intent to inspire and explore history, I can’t say it works well on either front.
At least the film, out today on Blu-ray and DVD, is consistent in feeling like it belongs in another decade. The special effects are contemporary and well-done, though the story itself is the sort of assembly line war movie made by the dozen when memories of World War II were fresh. Its heroes are uniformly noble, uncomplicated except for the occasional surmountable character flaw. This is the sort of film where a German pilot on the ground engages in a bitter stare down with a black pilot as the former speeds by in a fight plane.
Racial strife simply melts away with a good job performance. When heroes die, they are able to do so with enough time to make sad speeches about it.
The pilots are Tuskegee Airmen, the famed black fighter pilots of World War II. They suffered through enormous discrimination to become some of the most effective and eventually revered participants in the war. They’re represented here by a large cast whose most famous members include Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Howard is equipped with the film’s most thankless role, the unit’s senior officer who bitterly argues for better treatment by the Army brass.
These scenes, which should be among the most important in the film, add up to little more than contentious boardroom meetings.
When “Red Tails” actually joins the shooting part of the war, we're treated to lengthy and exciting combat scenes at the necessary expense of realism. Executive producer George Lucas has half-jokingly compared this to a new “Star Wars” film, and it’s similarly filled with CGI combat vessels trading animated fire. Also like newer “Star Wars” movies, “Red Tails” has a surplus of tin-ear dialogue. Lucas might not have a director’s credit (that goes to TV director Anthony Hemingway), but his stamp is all over this, enough so that one begins to appreciate that he has largely failed to follow through on his threat to make more movies.
Their story is one worth telling, though I’m not sure how much this will contribute to their legend.
Audiences best recognize and sympathize with heroism through recognizably human characters. Here, the men onscreen are more archetype than human. A film with this subject matter would benefit from more nuance, as these simplistic, broad strokes accomplish little in this time period. We want these pilots to succeed, but without complexity their adventures don’t rivet as they probably should. Yes, these men were heroic, but then again, it’s nice when a movie bothers to tell you something you don’t already know.
The DVD's main extra feature "Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War," documents the true tales of heroism behind the film.