Lucasfilm's 'Red Tails' Is Well-Intentioned But Thin

Red Tails is enjoyable enough and, like other George Lucas films, more throwback pulp than somber drama.

Red Tails

Director: Anthony Hemingway
Cast: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bryan Cranston, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Daniela Ruah
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-01-20 (General release)

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.