Film review by: Witney Seibold
A cartoonish lump of noisy, colorful, children’s war fantasies, Anthony Hemingway’s “Red Tails” is a bold stylistic leap of ridiculousness. Hemingway is, as I have learned through come cursory internet research, known for his gritty and raw hand in hit cult TV shows like the new “Battlestar Galactica,” “Tremé,” “The Wire,” and “Heroes.” His first proper feature film is more stylistically in tune with 2008’s “Speed Racer” than it is with any of those shows. “Red Tails” tells the story of a group of Negro pilots who fought in some notable skirmishes in WWII, and doesn’t seem to have any sort of relation with any actual reality; I’m sure the historical details were well-researched enough, but the actual impact of the film is less biopic and more Saturday morning cartoon. The planes, all created through CGI, have well-lit and clearly choreographed fight sequences that are exciting to watch. The characters are all personality-free archetypes that would have felt old and clichéd in a 1945 newsreel. The plot points are all predictable, screenwriting-101 laundry list requisites. And the film goes on for 135 minutes.
This is not to say the film is bad. I actually was rather entertained by the clunky drama and rock-stupid dialogue (example: “Look! Some Germans! Let’s get ‘em!”). I kind of liked the over-simplified version of history, in an object lesson sort of way. The characters may have been whitewashed and milquetoast types, but they were warm and familiar enough to be inoffensive. The film takes on such a boldly jingoistic, wholesome up-with-the-people approach, it almost feels like a propaganda film in itself. Like a hero film for 10-year-old black boys the world over.
“Red Tails” contains some of the couthest soldiers in war film history. These men in uniform are all immaculately clean and shaven, all have peerless skin and well-maintained haircuts. They do not cuss. They do not sweat. They bleed only in the most aesthetically pleasing ways. One of them does drink, but his toothless alcoholism is seen as a negative (even though he doesn’t ever seem to be visibly drunk). They each have their G.I. Joe nicknames at the ready. Ray Gun, Smokey, Deacon, Lightning, Easy, and Joker. Ray Gun is the “kid.” Smoky (Ne-Yo) is the lisping music man. Deacon (Marcus T. Paulk) is the religious one (he carries a picture of Black Jesus). Lightning (David Oyelowo) is the cocky crackerjack. He has a bonus subplot in the form of the pretty Italian girl (Daniela Ruah) whom he plans to marry (That he even has a romantic subplot is a clear indicator that he will be dead before the film ends). Easy (Nate Parker) is the alcoholic leader of the gang. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays their stalwart commanding officer, and allows his gigantic pip do most of the acting for him. Terrence Howard plays the CO who is fighting for his Negro pilots, making impassioned pleas to his white and mildly racist superiors (represented by Bryan Cranston).
I said that the film was breezy enough to be inoffensive, but let’s look at that statement a little more closely. While the film is fun to watch, and unapologetically artificial and sentimental, I wonder if it might not actually be a little offensive. It does bring to light the accomplishments of an entire squadron of talented pilots and devoted soldiers who accomplished a lot of difficult and dangerous tasks during wartime. What the Tuskegee Airmen accomplished was a wonder of civil rights, fighting for black people 20 years before the civil rights revolution began in earnest. Seeing them fight and making their accomplishments visible can only be a service. But by turning these men into bland, cartoon heroes with no personality, a clearly simplified army life and a stylized action-movie version of combat, are we not robbing them of their vital humanity?
What we have is Lucasfilm and a talented director teaming up to tell a very, very simple tale, based loosely on real history, and rubbing it of all its actual humanity in order to thrill us will some admittedly great special effects. If a pulp version of history is your bag, then dig in.