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A Little Too Much Black and White

Red Tails (2012)

Tina Mills/20th Century Fox

The true story of the Tuskegee Airmen is a fascinating examination of bravery and patriotism. These black men enlisted in the U.S. military during World War II and became successful fighter pilots to protect a country that would not even give them basic human rights. This slice of American history has all of the ammunition necessary for meaningful filmmaking. Think of the complexity of such a narrative; think of the conflicting emotions the young black soldiers must’ve had at the time; try to empathize with them. George Lucas, the executive producer and architect of “Red Tails” needs to go back to his dictionary, because empathy and sympathy are not the same things. His new creation is an unsophisticated World War II action film stripped of all gravitas. ”Red Tails” is little more than a superficial Hollywood product that cheapens the real achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The second paragraph in a film review is usually reserved for plot summary; but for this movie, there is little plot to summarize. Instead, plot points seem to begin and end arbitrarily. Stationed in Italy, the fighter pilots go on missions, shoot down German planes or blow up German ships, and come back to base camp to joke around. Screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder warrant blame for their lazy script that ignores character development in favor of computer-generated aerial action sequences.

The film spends the most time dissecting the edgy bond between best friends Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo). Easy struggles to deal with the pressure of being the team’s leader and copes by drinking alcohol before missions, while Lightning is a skilled yet brash show-off who fails to follow orders from his commanding officers. Messrs. Parker and Oyelowo are given the most screen time for their characters to develop. By default, they are the most impressive members of the cast.

There are a few side plots, all of them left underdeveloped. Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard) travels to Washington D.C. with the hopes of getting his soldiers more important missions. Lightning romances an Italian girl who doesn’t speak English. “Ray Gun” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) — the youngest member of the crew — gets captured by Nazis and tries to escape out of a P.O.W. camp. Any of these threads could have been the focus of an entire film; but here, they are left as side dishes. Way too much material is squeezed into the 125-minute running time; and as a result, the film has truly horrendous pacing. Instead of having some sort of epic quality, “Red Tails” emerges as a muddled mess.

The directing credit goes to TV director Anthony Hemingway, but he was just a puppet. Mr. Lucas’s handprint can be found in every scene. Maybe Mr. Lucas deserves a few ounces of credit for getting this movie made. He kept the project in his back pocket for almost 25 years and spent more than $90 million of his own money to get it produced and distributed. And because of his efforts, younger generations will be exposed to a very important group of men in American history. However, this is an action film rife with clichés and paint-by-numbers execution. There is even a kumbaya moment in a whites-only bar for American G.I.s, where comforting music plays in the background and all of the white soldiers introduce themselves to the Tuskegee Airmen. Everybody smiles, ebony and ivory, etc. But war is messy. Racism is messy. Somewhere along the way, Mr. Lucas forgot that.


Opens on Jan. 20 in the United States.

Directed by Anthony Hemingway; written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder; director of photography, John Aronson; edited by Michael O’Halloran and Ben Burtt; music by Terence Blanchard; production design by Nicholas Palmer; costumes by Alison Mitchell; produced by Rick McCallum and Charles Floyd Johnson; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Nate Parker (Easy Julian), David Oyelowo (Lightning Little), Ne-Yo (Smokey Salem), Elijah Kelley (Joker George), Bryan Cranston (Colonel Mortamus), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Maj. Emmanuel Stance) and Terrence Howard (Col. A. J. Bullard).


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