The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the great narratives of World War II. Trained near the end of the war, they were the first African-American pilots in a still-segregated military. The sole operational unit—the 332nd Fighter Group—was sent overseas, but initially kept away from combat due in part to fears about the pilots’ lack of experience. Eventually they were deployed as bomber escorts in Europe, displaying exemplary skill and becoming some of the most decorated airmen of the period.
The George Lucas-produced Red Tails is a fictionalized version of the Tuskegee story, focusing primarily on the action in the air rather than the drama on the ground. Written by John Ridley with rewrites by Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, the film takes the overall tone of a ’40s serial—which is, of course, Lucas’ wheelhouse. Director Anthony Hemingway (Treme) stylizes the picture like the flipping pages of a comic book. It’s an unpretentious and undemanding film: Little about Red Tails is designed to “make you think” or “stick with you.” The aim is to entertain, and on that front it’s quite a success. It’s not dissimilar to Star Wars, but replaces Stormtroopers with German jet pilots. (Close enough.)
The principal players—”Easy” (Nate Parker), “Ray Gun” (Tristan Wilds), “Smoky” (Ne-Yo), and “Joker” (Elijah Kelley), and especially “Lightning” (David Oyelowo)—are all terrific. They’re a stock but animated group of characters, each given their own bit of personal drama that is neatly (some might say too neatly) tied up by the end of the picture. Terrence Howard glows with pride as the soft-spoken but stern Col. A.J. Bullard, while Cuba Gooding Jr., as Major Emanuel Stance, tries so hard to chew the scenery that he nearly bites the tip off of his ever-present tobacco pipe. This is meant as a compliment: Gooding seems to be having a great deal of fun, and gives the film a lift whenever he’s on screen.
Most important, the aerial scenes, which constitute a majority of the film, are bright and brisk, and generally easy to follow. This is a refreshing change of pace from the convoluted, overcomplicated action sequences in many modern films. (The red-tailed P-51 Mustangs, when they finally turn up, look awesome.) And while the dialogue is incredibly corny at times, it serves the movie’s stylistic aim. For example, a few of the white roles primarily involve making racial epithets, but this can be viewed as either reductive or succinct. I think the latter was the filmmakers’ aim.
On that last note, some have made the argument that Red Tails is too lighthearted, that it trivializes the Tuskegee story. But what’s the harm in spinning family entertainment (its PG-13 rating is earned for just a few bad words) from such an important piece of history?