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David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Leslie Odam Jr., Michael B. Jordan, Nate Parker and Kevin Phillips star in “Red Tails,” a film about African American pilots during World War II. Photo courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd.
Arts News Rancho Santa Fe

‘Red Tails’ has action, falls short with history

Executively produced by George Lucas, “Red Tails” is cinematic confection rooted in historical fact.  The movie depicts an important chapter in U.S. history when African American pilots overcame prejudice and doubt, serving in a racially segregated military, to protect American interests during World War II.   Performing with distinction, they were the first African American pilots in the United States armed forces, and were subsequently known as

“The Tuskegee Airmen” after the program at Tuskegee Army Airfield, which provided black enlistees with flight training.  “Red Tails” was the nickname affectionately bestowed upon them when they painted the tails of their brand new P-51’s red.

“Red Tails” was the nickname affectionately bestowed upon them when they painted the tails of their brand new P-51’s red. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

The movie’s title, along with its design (red letters painted with broad brush strokes), is the first indication that Lucas’ treatment of history will be more popular than academic.  We are introduced to members of the 332nd fighter group as they are patrolling an Italian countryside in their clunky B-40s.  “Easy” (Nate Parker) is the squad’s leader, a sensible do-gooder, who, as it turns out, has a bad habit of drinking before flights.  His right hand man is Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), a daredevil pilot, who can’t seem to stick to Easy’s plans.

Lightning’s aerial improvisations and razor sharp instincts help the squad to destroy a munitions train disguised as a cattle transport within the movie’s first ten minutes, and, later, lead him to take out a German warship single-handedly.

While the squad is kept busy with routine assignments and second-hand equipment, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) does his best to keep bigoted parties in Washington from shutting the “Tuskegee Experiment” down.  Thanks to his efforts, the Airmen land their big break — the opportunity to face German fighter planes, one-on-one, for the first time.   It’s an epic showdown, thousands of feet above the earth, which can only be fully appreciated on the big screen.

With strong performances (including Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuelle Stance), and brilliant aerial sequences, “Red Tails” succeeds as a throwback to the Hollywood war films of the 1940s.  This is the movie, one imagines, Howard Hawks or Samuel Fuller would have made if Hollywood hadn’t been so stubbornly regulated by the Hay’s code, and the idea of a mostly black cast hadn’t been controversial.   Always a sucker for nostalgia, Lucas — who has been developing the story for 23 years — envisioned “Red Tails” as an action film in the tradition of aerial combat movies like “Hell’s Angels” (1930), where internal politics are deft but brief, and the majority of screen time is devoted to action.

The weight of history, however, has led many to want more from this movie than what Lucas has delivered.   While the script provides insight into the politics of the Air Corps, it is slim on the other adversities facing the Airmen.  Part of the reason is that “Red Tails” is clearly a fictionalized action flick disguised as a historical biopic; as such, it employs familiar tropes and character-types standard in movies of its kind.  Unfortunately, the movie suffers from clichés and one-dimensional characters.

While its narrative is far from perfect, “Red Tails” adheres to Lucas’ desire to make a thrilling and informative movie most of the family can see.  In a recent interview with, director Anthony Hemingway explained that part of the challenge of making “Red Tails” was finding a way to reach a youth audience unfamiliar with the Tuskegee Airmen and their substantial contribution to American history.

Strategically, Lucas and Hemingway chose to focus on spectacle, hoping younger audiences would be “wowed” enough to learn more on their own.

Though it lacks the gravitas of “Saving Private Ryan,” “Red Tails” is a rousing tribute to the men whose exploits could have been lost in time.