In the times before Martin Luther King put momentum behind his dream, African Americans had to be twice as good to get half as much as their white counterparts. Racism was justified and equality denied by spurious science.
Black soldiers were thought to be lazy, stupid and cowardly, so the government didn’t want to give them the opportunity to fight for their country — just cook for it in galleys and mess halls while white soldiers earned accolades.
A few brave men challenged those rules. As part of an experiment, the U.S. government tested black pilots trained at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Known as the Tuskegee Airmen, these aviators, navigators, mechanics and bombardiers maintained one of the best records of any squadron during the war. Their record is more impressive because these aviators were flying second-hand planes with shoddy equipment.
But for years these men who had to fight both the Axis powers and their government’s prejudices were a footnote in history.
Red Tails seeks to right this historic wrong. So it’s a shame that writers John Ridley (Da Brick) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) have created a flat, hollow story.
The film follows a fictionalized squadron of war-movie stereotypes. Marty ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker: Blood Done Sign My Name) is a tortured captain who needs a few belts of booze to steady himself for battle. Joe ‘Lightening’ Little (David Oyelowo: The Help) is Marty’s hot-shot best friend, who seeks glory instead of obeying orders. Ray ‘Junior’ Gannon (Tristan Wilds: 90210) is the young soldier yearning to be seen as an adult by his peers. Andrew ‘Smokey’ Salem (Ne-Yo: Battle: Los Angeles) is a wise-crackin, guitar-strumming southerner. And Antoine ‘Coffee’ Coleman (Andre Royo: Fringe) is the exasperated mechanic who patches together their beat-up planes.
These types, for they’re not really characters, are led by Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard: Winnie), who must fight racists in the military to get his men taken seriously.
A second problem beyond stereotypes is that Red Tails tries so hard to show how righteous and good these men were that it forgets to make them people. Parker is so inexpressive that you wonder just how much Julian must be drinking to be that flat. Ne-Yo and Royo are both excellent comedians, but we don’t know anything about the men they portray.
Only Little, who boils with anger at injustice of his situation, feels like a real, relatable character. He romances an Italian girl, throws punches at racists and speaks up when he sees Julian drinking. Oyelowo makes Little a real, flawed man. That makes him no less of a hero.
Why aren’t the other characters given depth? The Tuskegee Airmen were some of the best-trained and most educated pilots in the war, because they had to be. To not impress that upon the audience takes away from the real heroes. Poor Cuba Gooding Jr., who has won an Oscar, can only chomp on a pipe in the background.
The biggest problem, however, is the dialog, which ranges from boring to ridiculous. When the white bombardiers realize the Red Tails are providing them excellent defense, they exclaim, “Those Red Tails sure can fly!”
The film is not a total wash. Red Tails is most interesting when its protagonists are in the air. Computer-generated battle sequences are tight and tense as these pilots battle a scarred German fighter pilot and his intimidating squadron.
At the end of the day, you don’t root for the Red Tails as people. You root for them because they’re the good guys. Because they’re fighting the Nazis. Because they’re oppressed. That’s a shame, because each one of the actual Tuskegee Airmen was a real and extraordinary man.