January 29, 2012

Movie Review: Red Tails

Here is a movie that has had an interesting production history. Mainly due to executive producer George Lucas having had the project in the works for 23-years. Now there is some dedication. Why did it take so long? Well, as Lucas tells it none of the studios wanted to back it due to it being a large budget action film with a nearly all-black cast. He eventually stepped up and financed it himself, seeing a story that he wanted to see told. He always had an affinity for dogfights of World War I, adapting them into space for the Star Wars films. He has now brought them down to Earth using planes rather than starfighters. The resulting movie is Red Tails and it is good, but somewhat whitewashed version of the story.

The true history of the Tuskegee is an amazing story, told better in the 1995 HBO movie. Red Tails seems to strip a lot of the reality in favor of making an action movie. Rather than being a historical document, it is more of a throwback to the old swashbucklers with a healthy dose of patriotic bravado. There are modest elements of the rampant racism that was entrenched in the system, but they are downplayed in favor showing more planes and having characters filling types rather than fleshed out characters. Still, the overall impact of the film is definitely a positive one, but when you look at the individual elements that make up the cinematic tapestry, the foundation begins to crumble a bit.

Red Tails is a fictional film based on reality. We are introduced to a squad of personalities with names like Easy, Lightning, Joker, Smokey, and Junior (who prefers the name Ray Gun). They are pilots with planes thy can barely keep in one piece flying missions that are mop ups handed them in the hopes they would just go away. They don't. They have Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) who is putting up the steadfast fight for them to get meaningful missions. In Italy the squadron is under the levelheaded control of Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.).

We follow the pilots as they fly their mop up strafing missions, encounter racism at the officer's club, before they finally get a meaningful mission. When they get that mission, they distinguish themselves and become the preferred escort by the bomber squadrons. Their efforts went a long way to changing attitudes in among the brass as well as those studies that said "Negroes are not intelligent enough to operate heavy machinery."

The highlight of the movie is easily the flying. The dogfight action is rather exhilarating as we are put right in the cockpit as they race across the skies with bullets flying everywhere. Still, as good as those fights are, as well as the movie as a whole, it fails in creating compelling characters to really care about. We are presented with a squad leader who drinks, a hotshot who ignores orders, a young pilot rushed back after an injury, and the requisite themes of racism as plot beats as opposed to a regular story elements.

I have no problem recommending Red Tails. It is an entertaining movie with pieces of actual history melted into its inspiration. It is a movie that you should watch for the cumulative entertainment factor. If you want to learn more of the reality, I suspect there are better avenues to investigate.

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