George Lucas made news recently for a movie that has nothing to do with Star Wars. While making the promotional rounds for Red Tails, the project about the Tuskegee Airmen he shepherded for 20 years, Lucas has urged audiences to support this action-adventure war movie with all-black cast because so few movies like this are made.
Lucas is vaguely correct in that wide-release movies with all-black casts are dismayingly rare, and that the action-adventure audience might well enjoy the earnest, entertaining Red Tails, because or in spite of its difference from the familiar urban action movies that have featured all-black casts for years. Lucas—who served as Red Tails’ executive producer (not director, producer, screenwriter, or editor, at least not officially)—clearly didn’t have those movies in mind when he called Red Tails “one of the first all-black action pictures ever made” on The Daily Show.
He should have been more specific. Red Tails is not, of course, one of the first all-black action movies, not even close. But it is a rarity: the kind of proudly square war adventure that black filmmakers and black casts don’t have much chance to make when white filmmakers were making them, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The lack of those opportunities led in part to the invention and cultural specificity of movies like Mario Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song or even the studio-financed Shaft.
The major studios rejected Red Tails; Lucasfilm put up full financing and now, 20th Century Fox is distributing in the US. This is, as Lucas points out, troubling: a World War II cockpit drama isn’t the ideal test balloon for a major action franchise. The film itself feels engineered for audiences older and younger than the typical action-movie target demo of teenagers and 20somethings: older viewers will remember the old-fashioned storytelling rhythms that Red Tails imitates (say, 1955’s Strategic Air Command), while kids may not notice the clichés or clunky dialogue, but instead, focus on Ne-Yo.
Still, the movie struggles with those rhythms and clichés. The first words spoken are “Germans! Let’s get ‘em!” and that pretty much sums up its level of rah-rah discourse. But the self-confident and frustrated Negro pilots are not chasing after Germans, but are instead languishing on token patrols around Italy, while Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) argue to white officers that their boys are ready for real missions.
Howard and Gooding provide star-power seals of approval for what follows, and in Gooding’s case, proves that even in quiet-dignity mode, he’s capable of hamming it up. But they are supporting players here, as the movie focuses on the relationship between two of the young pilots, the impulsive ace, Lightning (David Oyelowo) and the more pragmatic, straight-arrow, but still troubled Easy (Nate Parker).
Oyelowo, Parker, and the actors playing their buddies—Junior (Tristan Wilds), Joker (Elijah Kelley), and Smoky (Ne-Yo)—have a pleasant, fresh-faced chemistry with one another. But they’re playing types, not individuals, and so this chemistry seems incidental rather than revealing. Lightning, for example, spends a lot of the movie as a cocky daredevil, but his impulses turn angry at the story’s convenience, when it needs to make points about racism, for instance. His explosive responses are not unrealistic, but they are schematic, designed to clash less with forgettable white foils than with Easy, who has a similarly convenient drinking problem that fades in and out of the narrative.
In addition to a large cast of pilots, commanding officers, and an Italian love interest (Daniela Ruah) for Lightning, the movie provides two bad-guy whites: an unnamed German flyer (Lars van Riesen), with an evil scar who barks evil orders (with particular venom directed at the “African” pilots), and the hissable Colonel Mortamus (Bryan Cranston), who believes the Tuskegee “experiment” has failed before it even takes off. With so many characters, the movie sometimes flies in circles: Easy and Lightning bicker, Mortamus glowers, Bullard gives a rousing speech, and Stance keeps grinning and chomping on his pipe. The plot is episodic, blurring the line between economical and perfunctory (with a running time over two hours, perfunctory wins out in the end).
Red Tails is enjoyable enough, like other Lucas films, more throwback pulp than somber drama. It’s not a bad tactic in theory. The Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, after all, are B-movies, their camp value enhanced by quick pacing and clever visual effects. But Red Tails is a B-movie without the camp. Instead, it offers impressive dogfight sequences and a historical perspective on racism around the world at the time, not unwelcome, but not especially coherent either.
What Red Tails lacks is the electric zeal of the more fantastical Lucas productions. It may be that Lucas and company considered this the more respectful path, but it has the mildness of a half-measure: it’s too cliché-ridden and silly to work as serious drama, but doesn’t offer enough old-fashioned thrills either. It’s an after-the-fact corrective, well-intentioned but thin.