George Lucas's tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen is short on historical context, but high on action. Red Tails is more of a summer action film, filled with patriotic fervor and a broad spotlight on the pioneer black fighter pilots of the US military. This is the kind of film that most critics will pander and most audiences will enjoy. The characters are likeable, but uncomplicated. The special effects are incredible, probably the best we've seen of old school aerial dogfights. While I can understand why some would be unimpressed by this film, I applaud it for paying respect to a forgotten generation of heroes. And doing it in a big-budget, flashy action spectacular that will entertain younger viewers. Most American youth have probably never heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, and their valiant contribution to World War II. If kids walk out of this film more enlightened, and maybe even a bit inspired, then this personal project of George Lucas will be a hit outside the box office.
The film begins in 1944 with the 332nd fighter group stationed in Italy. There's no explanation of the program or how these black soldiers became fighter pilots. It jumps right in the war where they are basically doing aerial grunt work. Racism and segregation is the way of the day, so this unit is pretty much treated as an afterthought and experiment. The squadron leader is Captain Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), a by-the-book officer struggling with alcoholism. The best pilot, and his roommate, is Lt. Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo); a firebrand in love with a local Italian girl. These men are titans to their fellow pilots, but subordinates to the base commander Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr) and the overall project leader, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard).
Colonel Bullard convinces the army to let his boys fight in real combat. They've trained for years, proven their skill, but the spector of racial injustice clouds their war effort. As the pilots engage the Germans and begin to fly sorties accompanying the bombardiers, they learn the true horror of combat; where injury and death can happen at any moment. But they win the respect of their fellow white soldiers, and of their German enemies, who are dumbfounded that 'African' pilots are blowing them out of the sky.
The racial injustice the pilots face is a bit toned down for audiences. There are some ugly scenes, but I'm sure in reality it was much worse. I believe most people will understand that, so maybe there's no need to hammer that in. While the characters are fairly one-note, they are likeable and well portrayed by the cast. Director Anthony Hemmingway does a good job in his first feature film. There could have been so much more to the script, but he took what he had and got the best out of his ensemble.
The combat scenes are great. Lucasfilm and the wizards/gods of Industrial Light and Magic continue to be the benchmark special effects company. I have no doubt this is exactly what these dogfights looked like. Crisp editing and sound effects also add to the realism and depth. If you couldn't care less about the Tuskegee Airmen, and only wanted to see a film with insane fighter combat, you would not be disappointed.
I'll admit that I am well versed in this story. The Tuskegee Airmen and their struggles was something I spent time learning about. They fought a war against a true evil, while living as second class citizens in their own country. I wish the film had spent more time on how they got there. But the truth is Hollywood would never have made this film. Lucas spent his own money, used his own company, to make a film he wanted to see. Star Wars, as much as you love or hate it, is his baby. Red Tails is the same. I applaud him sincerely for making this movie. It's a good effort with solid intentions. I hope most people will feel the same way.