There are times that I just have to sit back and look at the pop culture world and shake my head. Call it disbelief, sadness, disappointment ... what have you. Sometimes, the hate out there is so hard to understand.
Which brings me to Red Tails, a film George Lucas personally financed and helped usher to the big screen despite bigotry (at the least, outright racist attitudes at the worst) in Hollywood that saw studio executives decline to green light the movie because they didn’t think a ‘black’ movie with a predominantly African-American cast could be successfully marketed, or turn a profit.
Wow. Hearing Lucas say that on The Daily Show was a real shock, as money typically is colour-blind. I mean, selling a feel-good, patriotic war movie in the U.S. should be about as idiot-proof as it comes.
At the time of this writing, according to the website rottentomatoes.com (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red-tails) the movie has made about $33 million in just over 10 days of release. The movie has an abysmal 39% rating as far as the critics go, but the audience ‘like’ number comes in at a more respectable 69%.
OK, so that’s the politics at play here. What about the movie?
Well, I think some of the backlash being directed at this movie is because simpleton audiences truly believe this is a George Lucas movie and there are haters out there who want nothing to do but crap on the man, his films and his legacy no matter what he does.
The fact is that this film is directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. According to their IMDB.com pages, Hemingway and McGruder are African-Americans. Ridley doesn’t have a photo up, so I’m not sure about his cultural heritage, not that it particularly matters.
What does matter is that Lucas didn’t write or direct this movie, but he’s being criticized like it’s his work. McGruder’s history as a director stems largely from doing second unit work, as well as working on TV series. And you can certainly feel that when you see Red Tails because the film does come off in many ways like a feel-good TV movie of the week.
Is the writing clichéd? Yep. Is the dialogue clichéd? Yep. Are the performances clichéd? Hell, no. Could the directing have been stronger? Possibly. It’s not always easy to overcome a hackneyed script and there’s no doubt this reads like a piece of 1940s propaganda, viewed through the lens of the political correctness of the modern era .
But the performances in this movie are quite engaging and are at the heart of this film. I was actually shocked at how character-driven Red Tails was. I went in expecting high-flying, gut-twisting dog fights. I knew that Lucas had said the film wasn’t a history lesson, nor a look at what negro airmen went through in order to fight for their country. Those films are already out there if you want a serious look at battling 1940s racism in the military.
Or, as Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Maj. Emanuelle Stance, put it in a recent TV interview in Canada, they wanted to make a movie about heroes, not victims.
Well, mission accomplished.
Red Tails is certainly a heroic war film. Following the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-Negro fighter group, during the final year of the Second World War in Italy and over Europe, Red Tails follows a group of pilots as they try to prove their worth to the military brass.
Using hand-me-down planes that are patched up with spit and elbow grease, the men are assigned secondary and tertiary sorties over Italy. They spend their day flying patrols over the coast and blowing up the odd German train or vehicle convoy. It’s a far cry from being all that you can be.
In Washington, Col. A.J. Bullard, played by the always engaging Terrance Howard, is fighting to get his fellow African-Americans some decent equipment and real missions that will help in the war effort. They get their break due to a political play that blows up in the press, in which some racist members of the military brass leaked a report that says the fighter group couldn’t pull its weight because of skin colour.
So, the group gets a chance to fight, flying cover for a ground invasion that goes well. They shoot down eight planes and four of the pilots go off and lay waste to a German air base.
This earns them a shot at flying cover for the bomber missions over Europe. It seems white pilots were leaving the heavy bombers in order to try to shoot down German decoy fighters, leaving the bombers vulnerable to attack by other German pilots.
The fighter group is told that they are to protect the heavy bombers at all costs and the men are given new equipment, as well as a chance to prove just how disciplined and capable they are.
And that’s basically the action-based plot of the movie. There are character-driven subplots, largely surrounding David Oyelowo’s pilot, with the call sign Lightning, and his friend and flight leader, Marty ‘Easy’ Julian, played by Nate Parker. The duo clash over Lightning’s risk-taking in the skies and Easy’s drinking on the ground, which he claims helps him battle his nerves.
There’s also a subplot with Lightning romancing a white Italian woman (played by NCIS: Los Angeles’ Daniela Ruah), as well as Lightning battling white pilots at an officer’s club.
So, there is more than a passing nod to the racist attitudes these men had to overcome. But – refreshingly – this isn’t a film that ruminates about the racism. We’ve seen those films. There are myriad options out there if you want to look at the African-American experience, be it from the 1800s up to present day. So I’m not going to crap on these men for opting to make a movie about the actual work and performance of the men.
I will say, however, that I still find many of the character plots to be very movie-of-the-week-ish. The film has a somewhat amateurish feel to it. But the cast still manages to make you care about these men and see them as more than the somewhat cardboard caricatures the script foists upon them. They rise above and manage to put more meat on the skeleton, so they deserve kudos for that.
The film does tend to go for the easy moments, the clichéd moments, which harkens back to a lot of other Second World War movies. And I suppose there is some merit to criticize the filmmakers on this front if you are expecting more of a Saving Private Ryan instead of something akin to Raiders-esque portrayal of the Nazis and their war machine.
But I wasn’t looking for a historical documentary here. Nor a docudrama. I just wanted to be entertained and the film certainly succeeds on that level. The characters are memorable and interesting despite the clichéd writing and the aerial sequences are spellbinding. It’s some of the best aerial combat footage I’ve seen since Top Gun.
If you’re looking for a good time at the movies, a true park-your-brain, feel-good, popcorn flick, Red Tails is definitely worth a look.
And leave George out of it.
Check out the Red Tails trailer by clicking on this link: http://youtu.be/BpA6TC0T_Lw