The following review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily that of all Nerds in Babeland staff
This winter’s second significant war movie, Red Tails, is a film that is objectively important but horrendously executed. The screenplay from John Ridley and Aaron McGruder from Ridley’s book, follows a standard WWII flyboy motif, with all the tropes that implies. Red Tails gives the audience dialogue that ranges from the rousing rallying cry, “From the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man: WE FIGHT,” to the caricatured mumblings of Andrew “Smoky” Salem (Ne-Yo) which seem so dissonant within the narrative context as to be cringe-inducing. This is the film’s primary failing, it can’t decide who the characters are. Are they the Tuskegee-educated men history tells us they were: future lawyers, engineers, educators and scientists, or are they the standard flyboys chasing glory and girls that the film type requires?
In spite of the flawed script and heavy-handed direction, Red Tails succeeds as a historical action film. The battle sequences have a grainy authenticity, a period-appropriate newsreel flicker that is familiar to the eye. The dialogue leaves much to be desired, but David Oyelowo as Joe “Lightning” Little, Nate Parker as Marty”Easy”Julian, Tristan Wilds as Ray “Raygun”Gannon and Terence Howard as Col. Bullard, bring a sense of dignity and the struggle of the era.
Hindsight tells us that in 2012, with a bi-racial President, we have come a long way from the legally enshrined racism of the Jim Crow era. The fact that since President Obama took office, there have been an onslaught of requests for him to prove he is a natural-born citizen, tells us we haven’t come far enough. The resonance in Red Tails comes from both a history denied too long in mainstream film and the knowledge that even this film would not have been made if George Lucas hadn’t put up his own money.
Placing the heroism of the pilots front and center, without requiring them to be any more or less perfect than any other heroes; if nothing else, Red Tails says to the audience and to Hollywood, “There are so many stories to be told,” about people of color in any era. It is a direct statement that limiting audiences who want to see themselves reflected onscreen to just Tyler Perry, or slapstick-comedy, or gang-violence genres, is its own brand of institutionalized racism. The gamble taken on getting a broad audience to show up for what is actually a mainstream action-drama that just happens to be about the black experience in WWII, is also a leap of faith in that audience. George Lucas decided to bet on people showing up. I like the optimism in that.
Red Tails is not a particularly visionary film in style or execution. Anthony Hemingway seems to have a much better grasp on the aerial sequences than painting a picture of life on the ground for pilots who may have been more segregated within the military than they were as Americans in Europe during the war. Hemingway, Ridley and McGruder falter in walking the line between making the depths of the era’s racism clear, and treating the characters as pilots who were just as, if not more qualified than their white colleagues. I can’t say this is a film that will hold up to scrutiny either historically or as a film, but it is an important everyday film that offers its audience a chance to view a turning point in history through different eyes.