Red Tails

Red Tails (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

In World War II, the U.S. Army treats Negro pilots as though they do not possess the intelligence nor the reflexes to perform effectively in battle. Although African-American airmen are admitted in the army, members of the 332nd Fighter Group are relegated to jobs like coastal runs with secondhand planes.

In 1944 Italy, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) hopes to prove that his fighter group is fit for battle just like any white American soldiers. But with bigoted officials like Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) in the way, being given a chance to prove everybody wrong seems next to impossible. Under the direction of Major Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the black pilots itch to join the fray and prove their worth.

While “Red Tails,” based on the screenplay John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, wishes to make a statement involving the marginalization of African-Americans in WWII, its mundane script fails to impress as a movie composed of characters, based on real people, who have interesting stories to tell.

The characters who fly the planes are mostly defined by their surface characteristics. For instance, Captain Julian (Nate Parker), the squadron leader, is the one who likes his alcoholic beverages a little too much which makes his judgments questionable and Lieutenant Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) carries a “Black Jesus” around for protection. Since many of the characters are introduced at one time, such quirks prove helpful, at least initially, to help remember them.

However, once the characters become more familiar to us, their lack of depth proves frustrating and disappointing. These soldiers are supposed to be so patriotic that they are willing to put their lives on the line to protect their country and loved ones. I waited for each of their stories to be told or hinted at in some way but their conversations are always about what is in front of them and how bored they are due to a lack of excitement in their assignments. Not one of them talks about missing home.

The closest line of dialogue that provides some sort of insight into their personal lives involves one of the airmen’s admission that whenever he seals himself into his plane to do his job, a part of him feels like he has just locked himself into his grave. It turns out that others can very much relate to him. This scene commands resonance because it suggests that even though the pilots are outwardly brave, they feel vulnerable and afraid, too. Whenever they are up in the air, while they fire at their enemies, they must also keep their fears in check. The picture needs to show more perceptive moments as such in order for the audience to really appreciate the material and be engaged.

The film, however, has very good fight sequences. As the various planes speed through the sky and the camera jumps between inside and outside of the plane, I was excited at what is about to happen. The pilots may have been bored with their job at times but I wasn’t. Even more thrills are delivered during the dogfights between the Americans and the Nazis.

“Red Tails,” based on a book by John B. Holway and directed by Anthony Hemingway, also suffers from dialogue that either comes across too stiff or very earnest but it has moments of entertaining action sequences. If only we learned more about the Tuskegee Airmen as people when they were on the ground.

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