Tuskegee airmen deserve better
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Jan 20, 2012
Braving German guns on one wing and American racism on the other, the Tuskegee Airmen proved themselves some of the best combat pilots of World War II. The African American fliers' great achievement merits a great movie. "Red Tails" isn't it.
The complexions of its heroes aside, this George Lucas-produced dogfight epic could have been made during the same decade the airmen helped beat Hitler. The war-movie cliches are as abundant as the antiaircraft fire, and the dialogue as wooden as a balsa glider. The leading characters are issued one personality trait apiece, and some don't even get that. Cuba Gooding Jr., for example, plays Maj. Emanuelle Stance as a man who smokes a pipe.
Stance commands the Red Tails - so called for their planes' color scheme - at their base in 1944 Italy. Meanwhile, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) is in Washington, battling Catch-22 military logic: The airmen haven't been assigned any significant missions, and the unit is in danger of being disbanded because it hasn't executed any significant missions. Bullard makes his case, and soon the airmen have a big gig: escorting U.S. bombers (earnestly termed "the heavies") as they lumber toward targets in Germany.
The Red Tails quickly impress the bomber crews with their discipline. The fighter pilots stick with the convoys, doing their job rather than veering off in search of glory. On an individual level, however, the flyboys show less self-control. Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) is a hot dog who takes big risks in love as well as battle. Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) is so overwhelmed by the responsibility of being squadron leader that he regularly sips from a flask that doesn't contain iced tea.
There will be casualties, of course. But this is the sort of old-fashioned melodrama where at least one man who's presumed dead will turn up in time for the final credits. And the bullets the Red Tails dodge in midair are balanced by the raves they receive on the ground: They're regularly toasted, symbolically or actually, by white pilots whose bigotry has been dispelled by seeing the airmen in action. If only beating racism were that simple.
"Red Tails" works best when it speeds its message into the background. Assisted by a year's worth of postproduction at Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, director Anthony Hemingway stages several pulse-boosting aerial battles. These sequences are all swoop, boom and rat-tat-tat - until some character opens his mouth to utter a line so stilted that it could have drawn giggles in 1946.
Contains war violence and alcohol use.