Review: Red Tails

Synopsis: A crew of African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program, having faced segregation while kept mostly on the ground during World War II, are called into duty under the guidance of Col. A.J. Bullard.

Review: I often start a review by explaining my expectations for a film. I typically begin with what I’d like to see from the film and then go into what I actually received. Red Tails, simply, exceeded a lot of my expectations. I expected to go into a theater that reflected George Lucas’ apprehension about the box office performance of a film led by an African American cast. Surprisingly, I was pretty damn wrong as I caught one of the few shows in the theater that wasn’t already sold out prior to arrival. In fact I actually had a pretty difficult time finding an appreciable seat due to the sell through of tickets for the my show and sellouts of all other shows that day. Shortly after finding a decent seat the lighting began to dim and the film began.

George Lucas had made the film ‘Red Tails’ something of a passion project for himself. I wasn’t always aware of the movie but when I first caught wind of it I was stunned that a movie that Lucas had been working on for over 20 years was having difficulty finding distribution. I’ve seen a bunch of obscure films from Lucas over the years and, for the life of me, couldn’t understand why something of his was so radical that it had trouble making its way to theaters. I just did not understand. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is inspirational, to say the least, as equal rights and opportunities in North America was still well within the ‘refinement’ stage. The idea of these men risking their lives for those that fear and/or hate them is nothing less than heroic. Who wouldn’t want to find out more or see George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas’ vision about the feats performed by these men?

To put it mildly: the film begins with a whimper and a tinge of disappointment. Footage began rolling and the audience is presented with a perfectly blue sky followed by some fighter planes flying in the most tepid manner that you can imagine. I actually had to do a double take as I wasn’t sure as to whether the film began or if I was still watching previews for an upcoming movie. I only accepted that I didn’t have time for a bathroom break because the films’ logo passively appeared on screen and then quickly faded away. To say that my initial reaction to the start of the film was disappointing was an understatement. The introduction didn’t deliver the impact or the emphasis that I expected of a film that was trying to tell the tale of unsung heroes of World War II. There was no spectacle to behold, no orchestra of music or gunfire blaring, no crazy immediate aerial dog fight at the beginning of the film. Instead the opening moments were of a very subdued style. Yet without realizing, I found myself immersed by some unexpectedly amazing, interesting, and engaging characters as they performed more than a few breathtaking feats. I found myself having child-like fun while watching a good old fashioned aerial dogfight and I was excited by the onscreen action.

The film tends to echo themes throughout the 2hrs in which you are watching and at times is intentionally misleading. One misleading concept is right within the marketing of the movie and how the film itself introduces you to the world you explore. A lot of the materials I’ve seen for this movie have both Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard as the lead actors, which isn’t completely true. Red Tails is an ensemble film.

The film starts off by introducing you to its major players shortly after the opening scene with Cuba Gooding Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelly, and Ne-Yo being a few of the first characters you meet. The true stars of this film are found in David Oyelowo and Nate Parker. The movie spends a good portion of time devoted to the development and observation of the relationship of their characters ‘Martin “Easy” Julian’ and Joe “Lightning” Little. The performances of the principle actors were surprisingly well executed and they seemed to have a chemistry that cradles you throughout the film. You care for what they think about each other, and how they grow as individuals. You share in their excitement and disappointment and sense a real bond on kindness between them, as with all the other members of their squadron.

I’ll always be a stickler for appreciable performances from the talent in a film. I know well enough that Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, and Cuba Gooding Jr. have chops. My apprehension hit a high point when I became aware of the participation of the likes of ‘Ne-Yo’ and ‘Method Man’ in a World War II film. I typically don’t appreciate the idea of musicians foraying into the world of acting but thankfully the film was anchored by others who were more capable and their participation was kept to a minimum. In fact, I think Method Man may have only been on screen for a total of 2 minutes and Ne-Yo was given a role in which he could climb into a character that exercised, and largely relied upon, his musical talents. Their involvement wasn’t an overall detriment to the film as I eventually found myself enjoying Ne-Yo’s character of ‘Andrew “Smoky” Salem’. In all honesty their roles could have been cast to others who were more capable.

I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the casting of Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding and how they were being billed as the main draws, but that is mainly due to the “blemishes” on their careers. This film was familiar stomping grounds for both men as Cuba Gooding Jr. appeared in “The Tuskeegee Airmen” with Laurence Fishburne and Terrence Howard in Hart’s War with Bruce Willis. These two men are not the main players in this movie, but their presence resolves to be appreciated and welcome as being the elder, experienced officers within the ranks. They make key appearances by providing their subsequent generation with the wisdom and leadership they need. There were some scenes that you know could have been cast to someone else, but you appreciate that the words are spoken with the experience and conviction of the likes of Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.

An issue I often had with the film was found in the dialogue and some of the cliché ideas used for storytelling. Sub-par writing for the film was noticeable throughout the film with scenes seeming to end far too abruptly, dialogue that could make you wince upon listening, and standard plot devices were used throughout. There’s a scene in which Oyelowo’s character “Lightning” was being disciplined and was given a bit of a ‘pep speech’ from Cuba Gooding’s character “Major Emanuel Stance” that emphasized this issue. As a viewer I know that Gooding can give a good speech and could fill the role of a disciplinary, fatherly instructor. When his speech of responsibility that each soldier adopts for his brothers in arms was forcibly ended abruptly it actually made my heart ache. I’d become so immersed in the speech he was delivering, and the lesson he was teaching, that I wanted to receive that satisfaction of watching that scene come to a natural conclusion. It didn’t. It was a tease and it hurt like hell.

Another overused cliché sprinkled throughout the film was right at the center of a love story that’s far too predictable for most viewers. More than once I outright rested my head in my hand and wondered “What the fu…” as I predicted the “boy meets girl”, “girl meets boy”, “boy and girl want to marry” followed by…(fill in the rest) and it happened. I won’t spoil it entirely for those who would rather I don’t, but it’s these moments that are peppered throughout the film that make you feel that the writing is a bit dated and it makes these scenes a little painful to watch. Red Tails tends to distract you from these moments by helping you get immersed back into the overall story of heroism, friendship, and the heart pounding excitement of aerial combat. They don’t completely make up for the scenes that suffer, but they do try to help you forget them and move the film along.

It’s hard to reflect on this movie without feeling awe at the sense of history portrayed by the men in this film. My first knee jerk reaction when I left the theater was that I really enjoyed this movie and felt really good about it. It was a little corny at times, cliché, but the overall film had a lot of heart and made me walk away feeling inspired. My only apprehension with the film was that, like the fighter pilots themselves, this main players within and the film itself would be overlooked and under-appreciated due to it’s entirely African-American cast of lead actors. Bryan Cranston and Lee Allen Tergesen only have very brief roles in the film, which under normal circumstances would be considered a crime, but the rest of the cast carry this film so well that you hardly miss them. As such the film may not draw the audiences that the enjoyment of the film warrants.

George Lucas went to the Daily Show on January 9th, 2012 and expressed his difficulties with getting this film distributed into theaters. He explained that studios argued that a big budget movie with an entirely African American cast couldn’t be marketed internationally. It made me think back to the Star Wars saga and how Lucas often ‘echoed’ themes throughout his films. I felt that same sense of ‘echo’ with the underrating of the actual Red Tail pilots as being inferior and incapable without being given an opportunity to prove themselves. Say what you want about Lucas but he is consistent with his storytelling mechanics and some of his sales tactics. He’s subliminal but with a purpose and is one of the best out there with regard to promotion.

Lucas went on to cite Tyler Perry movies. Although they are viewed as successful the truth is that they aren’t distributed by the major studio and are instead released by their subsidiaries or just smaller studios in general. I hadn’t considered this notion until he mentioned this on the show and it made me look at the budget and performance of “Madea’s Big Happy Family”. That film had a budget of $25 Million and grossed $53 million at the box office. To put in perspective Red Tails had a budget of $58 million, not including marketing, that Lucas had to finance out of his own pocket due to lack of interest from studios. I began to have doubts about this film and it’s performance. I’m unsure if this is something that is acceptable in today’s market especially when you do take into consideration the international markets. George Lucas feels that if this movie doesn’t do well in the box office then it may not be until another 20 to 30 yrs for studios to try again with an big budget movie led by African Americans. Spike lee retorted by saying that he doesn’t feel any single movie can affect the situation either way. Personally, I have no clue but I understand both sides of the argument.

Overall: I feel that this film is worthy of a viewing in theaters. The aerial combat and the ‘Lucas sound’ are incredibly fun to watch on the big screen. If you can’t catch it in theaters then I could also see myself recommending owning or renting on Blu-Ray or DVD when time for the eventual release. It’s a fun movie.It’s corny but it’s fun and I ask could you, and should you, expect anything less from the imagination of George Lucas?

I give Red Tails a 7 out of 10.

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