10 years later, 'Red Tails' is a respectable, if disappointing, portrait of Black American history in the military
Something I’ll never claim to be an expert on is proper movie budgeting. But I often wonder, as box office figures for major studios got bigger in the new millennia, why certain studios didn’t invest more into smaller projects or production wings.
I say this looking at Lucasfilm, who, to my point, actually had a period such as this in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. This was when George Lucas and his inner circle realized just how much money there was behind ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones,’ and started putting their resources towards projects like ‘Labyrinth,’ ‘The Land Before Time,’ and ‘Willow’ just to name a few.
But while 2015’s ‘Strange Magic’ was the most recent non-Star Wars project from Lucasfilm, it also took place under the then-recent Disney acquisition. No, the last film to release before that merger, and now celebrating its ten-year anniversary, is 2012’s ‘Red Tails.’
Lucas wanted to do ‘Red Tails’ for quite some time, with some scripts date back to the late ‘80s. Once Lucas wrapped the ‘Star Wars’ prequels in the mid-2000’s, he and his producing partner, Rick McCallum, could finally pursue the story in sincerity. To a World War II afficionado like Lucas, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, remembered as the first black fighter pilots in the U.S Air Force, was too compelling not to bring to the screen, especially with new CGI effects he had worked with on ‘Star Wars.’
However, for various reasons, Lucas wound up passing on the director’s chair. Instead, he would pass the torch instead to Anthony Hemingway, an up-and-comer primarily known for his work on ‘The Wire,’ but someone who Lucas saw a kindred spirit in bringing the airmen’s story to life. When ‘Red Tails’ was released in January 2012, neither audiences nor critics really took to it. Many called it schlocky, imitative, and historically inaccurate to the real-life stories of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Admittedly, I also passed on the movie until I saw it on TV a few years later, but I’ve always been fascinated by the film’s place in Lucasfilm’s history, let alone the actual source material behind it. After giving it a proper chance a decade later, I think ‘Red Tails’ mostly holds up, at least for what it is. A very specific interpretation of the Tuskegee Airmen’s legacies, ‘Red Tails’ clever action sequences are easily it’s standouts. But it also feels more reliant on iconography and reputation rather than actual character development, and it can come off as more one-note than a story like this deserves.
In 1944, with World War II still ravaging American forces in Europe, Colonel A.J. Bullard (played by Terrence Howard) convinces U.S officials to send in reinforcements with the 332nd Fighter Group, an all-African American unit known as the Tuskegee Airman. Led by Major Emmanuel Stance (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), the pilot group also consists of Easy (played by Nate Parker), Lighting (played by David Oyelowo), Ray Gun (played by Tristan Wilds), Joker (played by Elijah Kelly), Smokey (played by Ne-Yo), and Bumps (played by Michael B. Jordan).
The group faces many trials during their service in Italy, including constantly faulty equipment, a German fighter squad led by “Pretty Boy” (played by Lars Van Reisen), and systemic racism from their mostly white supervisors, who still doubt the effectiveness of black pilots. The film also centers on the contrast between Easy and Lightning, the former’s alcoholism, the latter’s hotheaded nature, and the back-and-forth of whose method will keep more of their men alive in the skies.
The cast do a fair amount of heavy lifting here. ‘Red Tails’ in 2012 is a who’s who of black talent, both established and those yet to be. Yes, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. were established names, and both Tristan Wilds and Michael B. Jordan were fresh off working with director Hemingway on ‘The Wire.’ But this was also when Ne-Yo was still trying to set up an acting career, Elijah Kelley hadn’t had a huge role since ‘Hairspray’ (unfairly I might add), and Parker, Oyelowo, and co-star Leslie Odom Jr. hadn’t become household names.
For the most part, their comradery brings to life the film's best moments, whether they’re playing cards, trying to get into an officer's club, or just giving flack to flight engineer, Coffee (played by Andre Royo, also of ‘The Wire’). There’s also the microcosm between Easy and Lightning, the duality of patience versus immediate action that I found compelling enough. It centers the emotions of the pilots into these two characters, and both Parker and Oyelowo can dive into overall archetypes, as well as the more subtle moments.
Of course, the action sequences were the one thing generally praised at the time, and they are certainly memorable. Effects-wise, they do look a bit dated, likely as Hemingway and Lucas were eager to use ILM’s new visual developments for more fluidity. But as action and emotional highpoints, they succeed in spades. Even as the pilots are masked and zipping around, the cast do a great job of selling the chaotic nature of it all, plus Hemingway knows how to pace the fights out to teeter between historical believability and theatrical grandiosity.
That said, ‘Red Tails’ falls into clichés rather quickly. The tone varies wildly here and, while it’s clearly leaning into the clear moral stakes of WWII, the lack of poignant moments can be disappointing. The most we really get is an underwhelming romance between Lighting and a white Italian woman, Sofia (played by Daniela Ruah), and a half-interesting subplot with Ray Gun and some POWs.
Beyond that, the hardships the group face and their reactions never feel quite fleshed out. That’s not to say they aren’t effective, and there certainly might be audiences where that simplicity can work. But in trying to universalize the airmen’s struggle, the movie somehow diminishes its own legacy. It’s Lucas having, not just a significant pull with the visuals, but also in an outdated notion of storytelling that weighs down elements that could’ve been just as effective outside the cockpit as inside.
*which makes slight sense because evidently Lucas took over the back half of filming when Hemingway was unavailable, which makes the question of “how much of this is Lucas’ vs. Hemingway’s” even blurrier.
It feels odd to say that ‘Red Tails’ didn’t become a new classic of WWII films, and even stranger that the elements that were focused on somehow feel dated or mismanaged. The Tuskegee Airmen’s story is worth exploring in all its multitudes, internally between the pilots and as a key point in black American history, and ‘Red Tails’ just can’t quite give it the heft it deserves.
Still, Anthony Hemingway, while very clearly working with Lucas’ version of the story, does a good job in making the stakes feel real, the action visceral and giving more than a few points of reference for the characters. I can’t say it entirely works, but if scope and sincerity are all you’re looking for in a war movie, this certainly does what it needs to do, and it’s worth watching, if not even as an introduction to some powerful history.
Overall, I give ‘Red Tails’ 6/10.
‘Red Tails’ is available to stream on Disney+, on Amazon Prime, and for rent on VOD.