When a great movie subject results in a middling movie, the loss is double. There have been other films about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-African-American aerial combat unit to serve in World War II, but never one as heavily promoted as "Red Tails." This promotion blitz is to be expected: George Lucas is the executive producer.
It's been a dream of Lucas's ever since his "Star Wars" days to develop a movie about the black pilots, and one can see why. These men were heroes at a time when the military was racially segregated and there was widespread doubt about whether blacks had the courage or intelligence to fly fighter planes. (The film, which was directed by Anthony Hemingway, opens with a particularly egregious quote from a 1925 US Army study citing blacks' innate inferiority for military training.)
According to Lucas, who ended up financing a large portion of this film himself, the long delay in getting it made – its development began in earnest around 1988 – was because Hollywood, which sees little market overseas for such films, is loath to finance a largely all-black movie with no major white roles.
In attempting to dramatize real-life heroes instead of intergalactic ones, Lucas has, at least in theory, burnished his credentials. But "Red Tails," despite its core of authenticity, seems blatantly inauthentic, and I think it's because Lucas is still in his "Star Wars" mode. The Tuskegee Airmen come across as a species of Jedi knight, and their Nazi foes, the team leader in particular, are right out of the Darth Vader playbook. The aerial combat sequences, while adept, never rise much above high-style video-game blowouts, which only adds to the film's sci-fi comic-book vibe.
The screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, which draws on the exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group based out of Ramitelli Airfield in Italy, is as earthbound as the aerial scenes are stratospheric. The various airmen, mostly composites of real people, are quickly introduced to us and tagged with defining personality traits that never waver.
Squad leader Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) is staunch and honorable but has a drinking problem; his buddy Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) is a daredevil aerial whiz and lady's man; and so on. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the group's major. We can tell he's a thoughtful man because he is always smoking his pipe. Terrence Howard is Col. A.J. Bullard, whom Howard, in a bit of a stretch, has described as "the Martin Luther King Jr. of the Army Air Corps." (He's more like the Robert Duvall of the Air Corps.)
Was it the filmmakers' intention to make a movie set in 1944 that also (except for its special effects) looks as if it was made in 1944? Lucas and Co. must think this movie's retro-ness has moral weight. Instead, it just seems old-fashioned and predictable. This is not the first recent movie to summon an earlier (and supposedly purer) movie era by essentially drawing on bygone old-movie tropes. Both "The Help" and "War Horse" did as much. And in all these cases, dynamic, incendiary subjects have been treated most often with complacency.
This is particularly unfortunate in the case of "Red Tails" because so few movies feature real-life black heroes. But just because a film has all the right credentials doesn't mean it's all right. Best outcome: "Red Tails" becomes a commercial smash and Hollywood goes on to make "all-black" movies that take real chances. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.)