The laudable ‘Red Tails' misses its target

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Maj. Emmanuel Stance in “Red Tails.” (AP photo)

Published: Friday, January 20, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 6:36 p.m.

In “Red Tails,” the famed Tuskegee Airmen get the John Wayne-style heroic rendering they very much deserve, but in a hackneyed and weirdly context-less story that does them a disservice.


‘Red Tails'

Rated: PG-13
Starring: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston

Long a pet project of his, George Lucas self-financed the film and has said he hopes “Red Tails” will prove there's an audience for all-black movies. That's a laudable goal, but “Red Tails” reduces a historical story of deep cultural significance to merely a flyboy flick.

Instead of creating something authentic and new, “Red Tails” superimposes the tale of the black World War II pilots on a dated, white genre of 1940s patriotic propaganda.

“Red Tails” opens in the midst of an aerial dog fight while the credits are still rolling. Director Anthony Hemingway plunges right into the action, skipping all that pesky backstory of black men braving the segregation of Jim Crowe America and, against the odds, rising up at the Tuskegee Institute.

That history was stressed in an earlier 1995 HBO film, “The Tuskegee Airmen.” A co-star from that movie, Cuba Gooding Jr., is here, as the pipe-chomping Maj. Emanuelle Stance. The other higher-up with him is Col. A.J. Bullard, played with unnatural speech by Terrence Howard, whose smooth voice fails to find the register of a commander.

The film is centered, though, on the pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, which earned the nickname of Red Tails from the painted ends of their P-47 fighters. These first black military aviators in the U.S. armed forces flew more than 150,000 sorties over Europe and North Africa during World War II, often escorting Allied bombers.

Their bravery helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948. Some 300 of them are still alive, and most attended President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Our group of thinly sketched pilots all come with cliché nicknames: Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), Andrew “Smoky” Salem (Ne-Yo), Maurice “Bumps” Wilson (Michael B. Jordan) and Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelly).

The brash, talented Lightning and the alcoholic captain Easy are at the film's core, which is buoyed by a warm feeling of camaraderie among the pilots. Lightning also pursues and finds romance with a local beauty (Daniela Ruah) near their Italian base.

The biggest flaw here is the corny script by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. There's a fine, swaggering vibe, but a curious hesitance to really tell the Tuskegee story. Half of their two-front war (at home and in battle) goes largely without depiction, except for one or two minor scrapes with racist officers.

The whole thing is unrealistically sunny, both literally and metaphorically. The skies are always bright blue and hardly anyone dies. Though this is film about one of the most violent clashes in history, little seems at risk. The racist generals (Bryan Cranston makes a cameo as one) are back in Washington and the free, Italian base is a happy world away from the segregated U.S. The German fighters are cartoonishly evil.

“Red Tails” might smother the Tuskegee Airmen in the tropes of old Hollywood, but there's still inspiration to be found in seeing those tropes acted out with goodwill and fresh faces.

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