A labour of love for George Lucas, Red Tails is a film that has been in early production for over two decades. Originally planned for release in 1992, it has seen numerous changes in cast and production team in its long journey to the cinema. Red Tails was entirely financed in production and distribution by George Lucas amid claims that no studio would gamble on an all-black central cast with no prominent white roles.
Red Tails tells the story of an all-African-American fighter plane squadron during World War II called the Tuskegee Airmen. The 332nd fighter group consists of a close-knit group of friends whose only missions appear to be simple strafing assignments in Italy. Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard) manage to secure a mission in Operation Shingle fighting against German Messerschmitts for the squadron. However, their run-down planes won’t be the problem as the team struggle to come to terms with the racial oppression that they face in their everyday life.
Red Tails boasts an impressive cast but never really uses them to full effect. The young African-Americans characters in the squad played by David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds, Michael B. Jordan and Elijah Kelley are all two-dimensional, usually with one vice and one virtue that can be brought in at key moments to drive the action. Unfortunately these small and predictable points are not enough to bring emotional pathos to Red Tails, leaving it to over-sentimentality and almost nostalgia of other, better war films from the past. Character actors Gooding Jr., Howard and Bryan Cranston are also criminally underused throughout.
Red Tails also boasts a serious lack of dramatic depth and the squadron we are supposed to root for rarely have any actual hardship to deal with, and most of what they do is created from the audiences knowledge of the period rather than anything in the film. This is not to say that there is nothing to enjoy and admire. Red Tails has impressive special effects during the action scenes and there is something strangely comforting in knowing exactly where the story is going at all times. It’s like watching a cruder copy of an old war film that you’ve seen hundreds of times before.
An interesting story about a volatile time in history seem to give Red Tails the perfect opportunity to remind us all how far we’ve come as a society and how much further we’ve yet to go. Yet it almost immediately drops this central dramatic position in favour of action shots, two-dimensional acting, dialogue and story arcs. Crushingly disappointing in almost all areas, Red Tails clearly plays to Lucas’ passion for pulp fiction however is more akin to the Star Wars prequels than Saving Private Ryan in terms of tone and approach.