Review: “Red Tails”

January 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm Leave a comment

A lot is riding on the success of Red Tails. Most obvious is how this will be used as a measuring stick to gauge future box office performance of other action-adventure films with a predominantly minority cast. Sure, there have been plenty of big-budget films with a black or Asian or Hispanic (or whatever) actor in the lead role, but aside from the Tyler Perry-produced movies, there haven’t been many with an entire main cast that’s non-white. And if Hollywood wants to shake off its supposed “white-washing” of the cinemas, Red Tails needs to succeed.

And in a lot of ways it doesn’t.

The best way I could think of to describe this movie is to compare it to the aforementioned Glory. That film, made in the late 1980s, tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, an all-volunteer and all-black (except for the commissioned officers) infantry regiment that fought for the Union in the American Civil War. It’s a well-made and at times moving film about people fighting for a government that is willing to suppress them.

Now, take the same premise (an all-black fighting unit going to war for the United States at a time of segregation), and move it up to World War II. Still with me? OK, now strip everything away that was great about Glory and you have Red Tails. Here’s a run-down of all the times I rolled my eyes in Red Tails:

  • The bad guys are stereotypically bad – If there was an actual ‘villain’ in Red Tails, it’s this hotshot German pilot whom our heroes dub “Prettyboy.” He sneers, looks down his nose at the “African pilots” (as he calls them) and of course, has a scar. All that was missing was a Snidely Whiplash moustache and it would’ve been the ultimate WWII bad guy stereotype.
  • The pilots are stereotypes – No, not in the racist way. Many of the main characters follow typical soldier-in-a-war-movie plot lines. There’s the guy that drinks too much, there’s the new kid eager to fight, there’s the one that falls in love, there’s the wise-cracking one, there’s the stern commanding officer with a heart of gold, there’s the tough-talking executive officer who has to put up with all the pilots’ BS, etc. etc. etc. I understand that the screenwriters and filmmakers wanted to have some depth with these characters, but COME ONE. They fall into the most obvious war film stereotypes. In fact, you could probably guess correctly as to which one of them is going to die right after their introductions.
  • The rousing speeches are given at the stereotypically right times – There were two moments that stand out in the picture when a character is delivering a speech that was written to stir up the audience and make them stand up and cheer for the good guys. The first is when the Red Tails’ CO, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard), is giving a report to his superiors in Washington. He tells them that they need combat assignments and that they “won’t go away” like his superiors thought they would (part of the speech is in the trailer). He gets through to them and is given what he asked for: combat missions. The second was right before the last mission of the movie, when the squadron is assigned to protect bombers flying over Berlin. I’ve nothing against rousing speeches, but their timing and delivery in the movie are more important than what’s being said. Both times in Red Tails it fell flat. In the first instance it happened too soon. The picture was barely getting started and Howard’s delivering a line that sounded like Oscar bait. The second time it fell flat because of the music. Yes, the music. Simply put, the score for this movie isn’t very good and didn’t serve to either highlight the air combat or the rousing speeches.

I understand the filmmakers were trying to add some depth to this war film, but if the filmmakers wanted depth, they should’ve looked toward, again, Glory. Example: in Glory, the character of Tripp (Denzel Washington) is the young ‘angry black man’ of the group. He probably joined up because there was literally nothing else left for him and the opportunity to kill would give him a way to vent his rage at the white man. He could’ve been a stereotype, someone to contrast with Morgan Freeman’s character, Rawlins, who is older, wiser, and understands how the world really works. But there’s one scene in Glory that erases any first impressions you may have had about Tripp, and it’s the flogging scene.

As anyone who’s studied American history can tell you, slaves in the U.S. were not treated kindly. But this is a film, and we need to see and not assume what had happened to some of these people. When Tripp is about to be flogged for going AWOL one night (to look for proper shoes), he has his shirt ripped off in front of his peers. And then we see it. The dozens of scars that criss-cross his back, evidence of the harsh life he left behind. He’s been flogged, no whipped before, but as a slave. Now he’s going to be whipped by his superior officers in an army that is supposedly fighting for his freedom. So what’s Tripp going to do? Take it like a man because that’s what he is. A man. Not an ex-slave. Not a black soldier in a white man’s army. A man. He never “broke” when being whipped by his white slave owners, and he’s determined not to break this time.

But is there a comparable scene in Red Tails? Nope. Probably the closest thing would be when the Red Tails’ CO, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard) delivers a report to his Washington superiors about his squadron’s recent victories. He uses the moment to “stick it to the man” when talking to the overtly racist white officer who didn’t think the Tuskegee program had any chance in Hell of succeeding.It’s not a horribly bad movie (I’ve seen worse), but it suffers from so many war cliches that the only way I could recommend someone to spend money and see it in the theatre is to bring up the fact that big-budget movies representing minorities don’t get made often, and they should.

Essentially, I’d have to play the race card.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t dislike the movie. The air combat is exciting to watch and the special effects are what you’d expect from a George Lucas-produced movie (really really good). In fact, I’d say I had a reasonably good time watching it, but it was only after I realized this is no Glory. It also helped that the audience I saw it with laughed and cheered at all the right times, which reminded me that there are some people who are willing to buy in to war cliches. Still, sub-par acting, a messy script (there’s a whole subplot about a captured pilot that could’ve worked much better either as its own movie or left out entirely), and a questionable score just drag this movie down from what it should’ve been.

If you really want to watch something about the 332nd Fighter Group, watch the HBO-produced The Tuskegee Airmen or the decent History Channel-produced documentary narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr.

6/10

And just to be fair, Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, isn’t a perfect filmmaker, either. He fell into similar war stereotypes with The Last Samurai and Defiance. And another note, there’s a review I read somewhere online that said this movie felt like an old serial from the 40s. It kinda does, and maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to turn the story of the Tuskegee Airmen into a mini-series…

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