2012, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Gerald McRaney, Terrence Howard, David Oyewolo. Directed by Anthony Hemingway.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen and the obstacles they had to overcome back home to be allowed to fight for their country in WWII is truly inspiring. It is a story that encompasses not only the huge themes of racial segregation and institutionalized bigotry in the U.S. armed forces as well as the society at large, but also very personal themes of bravery, perseverance, patriotism, individual excellence, and brotherhood. The movie Red Tails tries very hard to bring these large and intense themes together, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
While the individual performances are good and the recreation of a WWII air base in Italy and the adjacent Italian village are fine, it is the CGI sequences of fighter planes and bombers conducting the air war over Europe that really steal the show. Still, even the amazing aerial feats aren’t enough to balance out the flat, stereotypical “German-pilot-bad-guy,” “racist-white-officer,” or “conflicted-leader-with-self-doubts” characters, not to mention the predictability of the plot. The movie opens with a disclaimer that it is “inspired” by historical events, so we shouldn’t be surprised at how it turns out, but the fictional characters inhabiting this story could have been given less standardized personalities.
Honestly, we were only a few minutes into the film when I started assigning labels like “Dead Meat” or “Maverick” to the main characters. (If those references are confusing, try Googling Top Gun and then the vastly superior Hot Shots.) A serious WWII movie claiming to have historical credibility that features a sequence in a German POW camp should not evoke images of television’s Hogan’s Heroes. That my mind was wandering so far afield can only mean that I was not sufficiently invested in the characters’ eventual fate.
To their credit, the ensemble cast delivered performances that were much better than the material they were given to work with. The depiction of racism and how the black pilots were able to change deep-rooted, ingrained, bigoted attitudes with their valor and determination was handled well, if a little bit stilted. I’m just disappointed that the filmmakers seemed to think spectacular CGI dogfights and explosions would be sufficient to carry the entire movie.
While Red Tails is entertaining and does pay tribute to the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, it just doesn’t accomplish those goals in any unordinary way. That’s a shame, because the real story is quite extraordinary. In the meantime, this is an excellent movie to introduce younger generations to the realities of historical racism in the U.S. military and how a group of black fighter pilots were fighting for so much more than their white counterparts in WWII.