In Red Tails, screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (with book by John B. Holway) shed light on the legendary Tuskegee Airmen stationed in Ramitelli, Italy in 1944 during World War II.
The African-American airmen unit — an experiment to determine whether African-Americans could successfully become fighter pilots — mainly was grounded or sent on cleanup missions because the United States military didn’t think African-Americans could.
So in true cinematic fashion and based on true events, Ridley and company share the triumphant moments of the Tuskegee Airmen. We meet a colorful cast of young, up-and-coming black actors playing members of the 332nd Fighter Group: Nate Parker as Marty “Easy” Julian, Tristan Wilds as Ray “Junior” Gannon, Elijah Kelley as Samuel “Joker” George, David Oyelowo as Joe “Lightning” Little, Ne-Yo
as Andrew “Smoky” Salem, Marcus T. Paulk as David “Deke” Watkins, Michael B. Jordan as Maurice Wilson, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Maj. Emanuelle Stance and Terrence Howard as Col. A.J. Bullard.
Red Tails, whose title comes from the crimson paint sprayed on the tails of the fighter planes, is an awesome movie that celebrates the rich tradition of our people serving our country. It sheds light on what the Tuskegee Airmen were about and the legacy they have left for people such as my friend Keenan, who flies planes for the U.S. Air Force. The Tuskegee men set a high standard for young men and women to follow. Such a legacy deserves a film indicative of these pilots’ monumental accomplishments.
It is commendable that George Lucas, who bankrolled the $58 million film, pushed against an unyielding Hollywood to get Red Tails made and distributed. He endured many obstacles trying to convince Hollywood executives to take a chance on an action film with an all-black cast that isn’t blaxploitation. Their reasoning: Black films don’t really make a lot of money at the box office, let alone overseas where studios make the most of their film profits.
One could make the case, however, that the problem wasn’t just the film having an all-black cast. The fact that the storyline isn’t whole could have been a contributing factor as well.
In Red Tails the audience joins the airmen in the middle of a fruitless mission, then is slowly introduced to the key players, such as Lightning and Easy. The way director Anthony Hemingway introduces the story is a little too hard and fast, but it’s manageable.
Where Hemingway, Ridley, and Holway make their mistake is in not fulfilling the audience’s need for an interesting story that has a beginning, middle and closure by the end credits.
That said, the actors’ performances are can’t-miss. Howard as Col. Bullard speaks with the cadence of President Obama and the intensity and precision of a trained assassin hitting his target every time. Col. Bullard is quietly bold, fighting with every syllable for his men’s stations, morale and achievements. Gooding’s Maj. Stance is more the doer to Col. Bullard’s speaker.
Oyelowo as Lightning brings intrigue to an otherwise hotheaded character, the kind of cocky black man many whites tried to “put in his place” in the 1940s and beyond. Despite Lightning’s quick temper and constant courtship of life-threatening situations, there is a tenderness in him that shines bright when showing concern for his best friend, Easy, and his girlfriend Sofia (Daniela Ruah).
All criticisms aside, it’s hard to say too many bad things about a film that celebrates the rich African-American history that all Americans share. Though there’s little to hold onto storywise, Red Tails makes a magnificent starting point for research into American history as seen through the eyes of these African-Americans who lived it.
Photo: Courtesy of A LucasFilm Ltd. & TM
FLYING HIGH: Terrence Howard as Col. A.J. Bullard in 'Red Tails.'