Red Tails, George Lucas’ ambitious historic war drama about “Negro” pilots in WWII is a film I really wanted to like. Co-written by Aaron McGruder, creator of the Boondocks with Lucas as the visionary and executive producer raised my expectations, but some of the decisions from casting, to dialog and the credit sequences were really baffling. The opening title sequence looked like somebody put it together on iMovie. It had to be explained to me that the film was going for the feel of a 1940s era war film, but that was still off-putting for me considering Industrial Light and Magic was used for the other visual effects, which were quite brilliant.
For fans of HBO’s The Wire, four of the show’s alums were prominent characters of the Red Tails cast (Bubbles, Michael, Cheese and Wallace). Michael (Tristan Wilds), or Junior as he was called in the film was among the film’s elite pilots in Captain Easy’s (Nate Parker) squadron, which also consisted of Joker (Elijah Kelley) the daring and somewhat reckless Lightning (David Oyelowo the executive from 2011’s hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Lightning seems to be the films major hero having the highest rate of kills and the inter-racial love interest. The more known cast members with multiple awards to their names, such as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston didn’t have much screen time but were given prominent billing on the promotional materials. R and B star Ne-Yo and the younger Brother from UPN’s Moesha (Marcus T. Paulk) also had performances in the film, but not necessarilly the good kind of memorable. Ne-Yo choose to use a horrible accent, that he stuck to for the entire film, you could tell he was really trying to be taken seriously but it came across as forced and comical for the wrong reasons. Moesha’s brother had the nickname Deacon in the film because of his dedication to his worship of Black Jesus, a dedication that is rewarded by an unfortunate fate. Which left me to wonder what that was symbolic of, was that if he prayed to the more acceptable White Jesus he would be better off? That’s the feeling I had, which was just a little unsettling.
The film’s most prominent antagonist is the Nazi ace fighter pilot known as Pretty Boy, despite (or because of) the obvious scar on his face. He appears in the beginning of the film with his squad wreaking havoc on an American transport envoy. Setting him up as the A Number One Badass of the film, I like to say he was similar to Darth Vader in that regard. The squadron encounters him on their first actual combat run where his plane is damaged by fire from the daring pilot Lightning, who has the plan to follow him back to the Nazi airbase, instead of finishing him off. This leads to a major victory for his squad where they take out a fleet of new German planes, bunkers and gunners, proving the value of the all-colored fighting unit. A victory that Terence Howard’s character uses as leverage to keep the unit active and secure them further missions and new aircraft. The P-51 fighter plans that the mechanic Coffee, (Bubbles from the acclaimed series The Wire,) paints the tails of the planes red. Upon doing so he and Method Man’s character describe the planes as “distinctive.” This exchange came off as hilarious to the entire theater.
I get the feeling that the hope for this film was that it would be the Glory for this generation. It’s an ensemble black cast that centers on segregation in the United States military. There was the level headed field leader and the hot headed ace fighter that was always ready to fight for the respect of the race and got a beating for these ideals, which sort of paralleled the relationship between Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington in Glory. The complaints about substandard equipment for the black squadron were similar to the inferior boots as well. Glory, however, benefits from superior dialog and performances. The quality of the editing was another let down although Ben Burtt, the editor for the Star Wars prequels for Lucasfilm was on the job.
Ultimately the premise of the film is what makes it worth seeing. If the quality matched the intentions of the film it would have made the viewing experience so much more pleasurable. I think we need to support this film so others like it will be made and taken seriously from a studio standpoint. It’s widely publicized that George Lucas had a hard time getting funding and support for this film, which is evident in some of the presentation. The visual effects were probably the best aspect of the production. The aerial battles were sharp and exciting but were only the appetizer and overpowered the main course of acting and pacing, which made character development, and plot points suffer. It made me wonder if the actors only got one take to get it right. Lightning gave the strongest performance of the films leads. Moments that should have been powerful fall flat, because the way the lines are delivered lack emotional authenticity. There are also over the top racially charged lines that come across as back handed compliments, like the line during a prison break where the white officer tells Junior he won’t be seen at night because of his color, although he’s one of the more light complected of the black actors in the film.
It’s a hard movie to sit through considering what it could have been, but as I said supporting this film would encourage Hollywood to more chances on bigger budget films for the African-American community and maybe we’d have a little less coonery and simple stories that get rehashed over and over.