Anthony Hemingway, John Ridley, Aaron McGruder (of theBoondocks) and producer George Lucas have combined to deliver a fun and more than serviceable (as well as very respectful to the subject matter) movie about the awe inspiring Tuskegee airmen. With a full cast of marquee actors such as Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., and a range of folks from HBO's The Wire, the movie is overflowing with familiar faces.
Red Tails is George Lucas's long in the making vanity film about the all African American 332nd Fighter Group during World War 2--a time when Jim and Jane Crow segregation was the law of the land, and "separate but equal" was thought to be a military and social necessity. The movie is corny. It is predictable. There are no surprises here with the plot or character development. And for those folks who possess even a passing familiarity with the Tuskegee Airmen's story and the "Double V" campaign by black Americans for victory abroad against fascism, and at home against white supremacy, Red Tails is a very much by the numbers movie.
Consequently, Red Tails features the obligatory scenes where the black airmen stand up to white bigots and "earn" their respect. There are moments of esprit de corps where the black airmen reflect on the need for race pride, dignity, and excellence in the face of white racism. The Tuskegee airmen are the perennial underdogs, who along with a few self-interested white allies, earn their shot at the big time and deliver brilliantly. The Germans are one dimensional villains and caricatures. As is now obligatory (and quite problematic) in movies about black G.I.'s in World War 2, there is an interracial love story where one of the African American protagonists falls in love with a beautiful white woman and race is curiously omitted as an obstacle in their relationship.
We know that George Lucas loves speed. To point: the dogfights are thrilling, chaotic, and visceral as they embody a love of machines that began on the screen back with American Graffiti and continued through to Star Wars (the soundtrack and effects were still being finalized, but there are clearly sounds lifted from the pod race in Episode Oneinserted into the dogfights when the P-51 Mustangs square off against the German Luftwaffe). As a bit of a grognard and gear head, to my eyes at least, George Lucas employed some solid military consultants as the planes don't float like u.f.o.'s--they have real weight and gravity as they move across the screen. Red Tails also features some nice details in the insignia and nose art of the Tuskegee Airmen's Warhawks and Mustangs, which in total work to give an air of authenticity to the film.
In all, Red Tails is a mix of the 1990s World War 2 movie Memphis Belle, and such classics as Twelve O'Clock High and The Flying Leathernecks. Consequently, the nostalgia level is turned way up, and the dialogue is both self-consciously and unapologetically aware of its melodrama. Thus, there are several times when the film force feeds nationalism and patriotism down the audience's throat.
I will forgive George Lucas and the writers of Red Tails that aesthetic and narrative choice. For a variety of reasons, Black Americans (and other people of color) never got their corny, jingoistic, nostalgia laden mass market World War 2 movie (Windtalkers excluded). Now we have it in Red Tails. Will the movie do good business given that America is exhausted and made cynical by an imperial misadventure in Iraq and a losing war in Afghanistan? Perhaps, many potential movie goers will be turned off by a film that is not Saving Private Ryan. There are likely others who yearn for a return to a simple story of good guys and bad guys where the lines of right and wrong are clearly drawn.
In the Age of Obama, I will forgive a bit of flat history and two dimensional character and plot development. It took decades, but we finally have a technically competent, compelling, World War 2 action movie where black folks are treated with respect, dignity, and not as sideshows to our own history (the excellent movie A Soldier's Story is a different genre).
I would like to thank you George. As a life long Star Wars fan and unapologetic ghetto nerd, you have earned back some of my love. It is appreciated and respected. I may not forgive you the misstep that was The Phantom Menace, but with Red Tails you showed me that you still have heart.