20th Century Fox
Directed by Anthony Hemingway
Produced by Rick McCallum, Charles Floyd Johnson and George Lucas
Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder
By now the story is legend. The Tuskegee Airmen were heroic African-American fighter pilots that fought in World War II, earning honor and distinction as bomber flight escorts. So successful were they at getting bomber groups to their targets and back to friendly airspace safely that soon commanders of bomber flights were specifically requesting that they be escorted by the 332 Fighter Group a.k.a. the RED TAILS.
This isn’t the first movie to tell the saga of The Tuskegee Airmen. There’s the HBO movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” from 1995. In fact, Cuba Gooding, Jr. who stars in RED TAILS was in that one as well. It’s a story of true sacrifice, heroism and courage that took George Lucas 25 years to bring to the big screen. And I give him a standing ovation for finally accomplishing that task. And while I enjoyed RED TAILS mostly I feel that the great, epic movie about The Tuskegee Airmen has yet to be made.
Over in 1944 Italy, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) struggles to keep his pilots on a tight leash. Champing at the bit to see some real action, “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) “Smokey” Salem (Ne-Yo) and “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) are fed up with meaningless recon patrols in broken down planes that their chief mechanics “Coffee” Coleman (Andre Royo) and “Sticks” (Method Man) can barely keep flying.
That changes when orders come from their commanding officer, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) who has been in Washington battling to get his squadron a real mission. It isn’t easy dealing with the blatant racism of Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) who is more than eager to disband the squadron. But with the help of Captain Tomilson (Lee Tergesen) he gets that mission and The Tuskegee Airmen get their chance.
And while The Tuskegee Airmen are busy making legends, they’re also making enemies in the form of a German ace they know only as “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen) while “Lightning” is equally busy making a future life with a village girl named Sofia (Daniela Ruah) he’s fallen in love with and wants to marry.
Despite all of these characters, RED TAILS really skimps hard on the characterization. Which I suppose is why all the major characters have colorful nicknames. It helps to keep them straight. There are is some effort made to show the racism that The Airmen had to confront but it doesn’t seem to go into that deeply. I get the impression that the filmmakers take it for granted that we know about The Tuskegee Airmen and their struggles against racism and so concentrate more on the action in the sky.
Not that I minded. I always appreciate a good dogfight and there’s plenty of good ones here. I give director Anthony Hemingway credit for getting Cuba Gooding, Jr. to behave himself and act like a human being instead of a live action cartoon. And I’m willing to bet that Gooding grew up watching more than his share of World War II movies. Both he and Terrence Howard have a lot of fun delivering stirring speeches about never giving up and fighting for their country.
So should you see RED TAILS? There’s a lot to like in the movie. It’s professionally made and acted. Just don’t look for much depth in the characters or the historical background of The Tuskegee Airmen and you’ll be fine.