The legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is energetically revived in Red Tails, which would be a good war movie even without the historical importance. Armed with the most impressive World War II aerial effects ever filmed, director Anthony Hemingway makes a crowd-pleasing feature debut.
The Tuskegee Airmen was a nickname for the 332nd Fighter Group, a U.S. Army Air Corps squadron comprised of African-American pilots as an experiment to learn if "Negroes" were fit for combat. They ace that test, protecting bomber missions against Nazi warplanes, and altering bigoted perceptions.
Red Tails begins with the 332nd segregated by location and opportunity to fight. Far away from the action, they fly unexciting coastal patrols, livened by an occasional strafing of enemy transports. Nothing at the front lines, where success would force the all-white brass in Washington D.C. to admit the prejudice had been wrong. Only the persistence of Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) gets them a chance to prove their mettle.
The problem with Red Tails is that screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder reach the point when the 332nd is respected midway through the movie. The inspiring parts get replaced by subplots that may or may not have basis in fact, or at least seem forced by being condensed. Rather than foxhole stereotypes we get cockpit cliches. It's strangely supportive of the 332nd's lesson: Black war movies can be just as old-school corny as John Ford's white ones.
The central pilot is Lt. Joe Little (David Oyelowo), a brash sort who'll defy orders if he has a clear killshot on an enemy plane. Joe is also a ladies man who falls in love with Sofia (Daniela Ruah) when she waves from a rooftop as he flies by. Neither speaks the other's language but romance blooms. Joe is also the film's mouthpiece for resentment at the way black soldiers are treated, starting an officer's club brawl when someone uses the n-word.
Joe's best friend is Capt. Marty Julian (Nate Parker), a flight commander with daddy issues and a drinking problem that will cost at least one pilot his life. It could be Deke (Marcus T. Paulk), the resident Bible reader, or perhaps Ray Gun (Tristan Wilds), a new recruit whose idealism is a fast clue of doom. It certainly won't be Bullard or Maj. Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who remain on the ground pondering their next inspirational speeches.
Thankfully, much of Red Tails is spent in the skies, where fighter planes swoop and zoom in thrilling dogfights with incendiary direct hits. Executive producer George Lucas apparently gave Hemingway the keys to his CGI kingdom, creating marvelously designed in-flight action and a sappy, snappy salute to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.