Red Tails
It’s 1944 in war-torn Italy where an all-black fighter pilot group are based, tasked with the mundane flying jobs while the white pilots get to fight nose to nose with the Nazi enemy in the skies for Uncle Sam.


10 June 2012

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Plot summary

A brave group of African American Men, who beat the odds in the Tuskegee training program, are sent into combat in Italy. Supplied with out-dated, worn out aircrafts, doubted by the white military bureaucracy, and given seemingly meaningless missions, the group of African American fighter pilots overcome their odds and continually impress the high ranking white military with their astounding record. The Tuskegee airmen are finally tasked with the esteemed mission escorting the first American bombers to attack Berlin.

When you have a dream project, you want to do it the utmost service. The fact that Star Wars guru George Lucas is so passionate about the heroic feats of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter-pilot squadron in WWII, means that he may be guilty of over-cooking the pudding while trying his hardest not to lean proceedings more towards a civil rights piece.

There is plenty to enjoy with Red Tails in terms of camaraderie and strength of spirit, but it feels a little too glossy and plays it too safe to the mark, rather than pushing the boundaries for a family film to recreate more of the obvious and most immediate dangers the airmen faced. In this respect, you can appreciate the criticism from some that it may trivialise some of the heroic real-life feats, in favour of playing dogfight video games.

It’s 1944 in war-torn Italy where an all-black fighter pilot group are based, tasked with the mundane flying jobs while the white pilots get to fight nose to nose with the Nazi enemy in the skies for Uncle Sam. Thanks to the tenacious nature of Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) in Washington who believes in his men’s flying skills, the Tuskegee Airmen become overnight heroes in delivering the US bombers to their target.

Lucas and co have put their trust into a virtually unknown cast of attractive males who instantly engage our interest with their joviality and easy spirit, regardless of the basic – sometimes stilted – lines of delivery. It’s obvious this is a Lucas venture, with a ‘boys and their toys’ perspective and love of action-packed stunts. With the polarised good guys and bad guys – complete with dastardly-looking Nazi henchman pilot, it’s impossible not to come down on the side of and root for the underdogs in grand story about overcoming adversity when you have talent.

But as the banter becomes second nature and the somewhat trifle unbelievable love story between arrogant but big-hearted airman Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (David Oyelowo) and a local white Italian girl – who both never experiencing any local racism during their tryst, thank goodness for the thrilling aerial fights to reignite the scene. They may well be on the CG-heavy side but they sweep you up in the pride-swelling glory of what these pilots achieved. Perhaps it doesn’t fully represent a truthful historical account but it cannot fail to make a good impression about loyalty and honour in a present-day world sadly lacking. In that case, it may spurn some to read up more about the history afterwards.

Naturally, there is a sense of impending doom that accompanies any such war film – someone must shrug off their mortal coil; it’s just the time it takes for this to happen that makes the wait for us (and the boys) all the more unnecessarily lengthy at times. The only dangers in the meantime are some of the boys’ bad habits, one of which bewilderingly causes catastrophe in the air but is hardly of earth-shattering consequence, considering the build up to it. Again, the immediate threat of danger is diffused, and this is where the film then falls back on the boys’ winning personalities to save the day.

Red Tails is a war action buff’s matinee delight. It could be argued that making a more gritty account would have detracted from the focus on the strong buddy element and group connection felt while watching these remarkable men. At the same time, those knowledgeable on the Tuskegee Airmen subject may feel a little short-changed. But it cannot be argued that theirs isn’t a story worth telling here – however diluted.