At its core Anthony Hemingway’s “Red Tails” is a story of racial segregation and defying the odds. Inspired by a true story, it centers on the all black crew of fighter pilots that came out of the Tuskegee training program during World War Two, which had one of the best records in the war. However, I have not seen a movie like this done in such a playful and exhilarating way.
Here’s a movie about racial segregation that isn’t so by the numbers. Hemingway and his writers don’t shove the morals down our throats but instead do it in the style of a B action movie. So in the end it becomes more about the black fighter pilots having to fight the common German enemy as opposed to always being at odds with the whites. Considering it’s Executive produced by George Lucas, that should come as no surprise.
With John B Aronson’s airbrush painted cinematography and Terence Blanchard’s rousing and patriotic soundtrack, “Red Tails” evokes a sense of nostalgia, an homage to earlier war movies. In the same way Lucas drew from early matinee serials and pulp magazines for inspiration for the creation of “Indiana Jones,” the same could be said about this film’s style. And by making it inspired by a true story it gives Hemingway and his crew some room to exaggerate.
The film isn’t always successful, in fact sometimes it can be a little too cartoonish (a maniacal one dimensional Nazi pilot that’s given more screen time than needed, for example) but for the most part this lively take on an inspiring story is entertaining and refreshing.
When we first meet the fighter pilots, they’re not at the training school getting yelled at by white officers but instead up in the air on a run, jiving and joking back and forth between each other about how they don’t get any good missions and that they have to fly hand-me-down planes. We get to see them in a positive light, all cocky and confident. Even though they’re the underdogs they still hold their heads up.
As with many war movies, “Red Tails” has the difficult task of balancing all the different characters. It’s not entirely successful but overall it does a modest job of at least establishing a few main characters that we can latch on to. These include Nate Parker as Martin Julian, the squad leader, and David Oyelowo as Joe Little, who’s the most battle hungry of the squad, the one willing to go head first into a highly dangerous fight.
The script by John Ridley and Aaron MacGruder is at its best when it shows the camp life. Showing the brotherly love between the pilots and the other crewmen (they have nicknames for each other like “Ace” and “Lightning”) and also showing their quarrels and problems like Parker’s drinking problem. The main issues the movie chooses to focus on aren’t just racial.
Now, I’m not saying that the picture completely avoids the racial segregation issue, Hemingway just isn’t heavy handed about it. He doesn’t assume that the audience has no idea what it is and what it looks like. The fact that it’s an all black crew (pilots, mechanics, doctors, etc) is enough. He doesn’t flood the screen with one scene after another of white soldiers ridiculing the blacks and the few confrontations between them are turned upside down.
Such as a scene where Little is told to leave an officer’s bar, filled with all whites. Instead of hanging his head in shame he goes back and punches the officer, the same audacious thing someone like Indy Jones might do. Or later on after a successful mission when Little and Parker and a few others are confronted by the same white officers, not with hostility but with gratitude, and even offer to buy them a drink. The scene may be corny but it’s amusing watching their puzzled faces, unsure of whether to go in or not.
By choosing to make the film the way they did, Hemingway and crew have mostly waived the opportunity to show the raw intensity of war. Instead of making war look like hell, they’ve made it look glorious. Making the planes and the battles CGI already creates some emotional disconnection. And as I’ve said the movie doesn’t always work, there’s a side plot between Little and an Italian girl that feels tacked on, but for dealing with such a heavy issue Lucas and Hemingway have made a versatile movie that can appeal to a wider audience.