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Movie Review: Red Tails

George Lucas' self-financed salute to the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II

Red Tails - Joe 'Lightning' Little

Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox Films

David Oyelowo portrays Joe "Lightning" Little in the movie <i>Red Tails</i>. Oyelowo and other actors got guidance from real Tuskegee Airmen.

Director: Anthony Hemingway
Rated: PG-13, Runtime: 120 mins.
Stars: Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Oyelowo

En español  |  The opening credits for Red Tails — the new movie about the renowned African American Tuskegee Airmen and their contributions to the U.S. World War II efforts — tell us that the film is “inspired by true events.” If only it were more inspiring.

Instead, the very retro Red Tails volleys between creaky history lesson and overwrought, awkward melodrama. Half of it plays like one of those plodding information-packed movies you might watch on the huge screen during a visit to the Smithsonian (albeit one with an enormous special effects budget and a few exhilarating aerial battles). The other half plays like blubbery outtakes from the 2001 misfire Pearl Harbor, another film that struggled to take a true WWII story and turn it into mass market entertainment.

Forgive me if I’m making Red Tails sound worse than it actually is — any comparison to Pearl Harbor is apt to do that. To be sure, the story of the first African American fighter pilots in the U.S. military is an inspiring one, and well worth telling.

Red Tails follows a quartet of Airmen with war-movie-ready nicknames — Easy (Nate Parker), Lightning (David Oyelowo), Junior (Tristan Wilds) and Joker (Elijah Kelly) — and two of their superior officers, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard).

It traces the pilots from an ignominious beginning, flying decrepit planes plucked off Army scrap heaps and patrolling the empty skies over Italy. Later they get to prove their flying prowess when — their planes brazenly adorned with red paint on their tails — they escort bombing missions over Berlin, outwitting and outmaneuvering enemy pilots who flew far superior equipment.

In between, the pilots and officers face racism on the ground and enemies in the sky as they struggle to gain acceptance in a “white man’s army.” But the characters in Red Tails are too often caricatures, and their dialogue veers from overly expository to downright clunky. And for some reason, director Anthony Hemingway keeps showing us what seems to be the same German pilot. He magically flies into every battle and growls phrases like “Show no mercy!” and “Die, you foolish Africans!”

The cast of "Red Tails" as The Tuskegee Airmen

Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox

The Tuskegee Airmen in <i>Red Tails</i>.

There is precious little in the way of cultural context. We learn nothing about the origins of the Tuskegee Airmen. We can only infer the challenges they face; at best we get passing references to news reports and clipped scenes during which Bullard attempts to prove their worth to his commanding officers. Instead, the story wanders into myriad subplots: one pilot romances a local village girl, another battles alcoholism. There’s even a prison escape (don’t ask).

Red Tails really takes flight during its aerial battle sequences, and some of the dogfights are spectacular. That the movie is a passion project from producer George Lucas — whose Star Wars movies similarly featured astounding action sequences and stultifying plot and dialogue — should surprise no one.

There are a few nice performances and moments here, but the tale of the Tuskegee Airmen deserves a better movie than this. I wish Red Tails had focused less on special effects, action and aimless subplots, and more on the story of a group of men who not only believed that the idea of what their country — and the world — could be was better than the reality. They put their lives on the line for it.