Red Tails is a film that has been George Lucas’s passion project for the last two decades. The problem with passion projects is that they can be hard to finance. The other issue inherent with making a passion project like Red Tails is that it is a film starring an all African-American cast and film studios don’t believe that a film with minorities as the main characters can appeal to an international audience.
Red Tails is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen who had to fight segregation in World War II because society did not want to accept them as true fighter pilots. The fighter pilots that are essential to the story of Red Tails are Marty “Easy” Julian and Joe “Lightning” Little. Joe and Julian are best friends and the film is essentially the story of their group’s determination to become accepted. Red Tails is a fine example of what it means to have an ensemble cast. There isn’t any actor who plays a lead role in Red Tails. Every actor turns in a unique performance that adds to the story rather than having any standout leads. Cuba Gooding Jr, Terance Howard, Bryan Cranston, Ne-Yo and Tristian Wilds all have roles in the film.
My problem with this film is the personalities of the characters. All the characters in the film are stereotypes we’ve seen in other military movies. Some of the archetypes present in this film include: the pilot with drinking problem, the pilot who’s viewed as “the kid”, and the impulsive pilot who constantly puts himself in danger. Because the characters are so one-dimensional, it’s almost impossible to find someone to root for throughout the film. I wanted to care about these characters and their struggles but the childish dialogue and actions of the characters made them seem not only immature but also unintelligent. I love stories about overcoming obstacles and challenging perceptions on race, but the experiences depicted in this film only focused on the anger and disappointment the pilots felt because they were not given actual missions. While I can see the undertone of the Tuskegee airmen not being respected by the air force, I would have liked to see that group of men struggle in more diverse ways.
Another problem with this film is its setting. The majority of the film takes place in Italy in 1948. There’s not much room to tell a story about oppression in Italy. Italy looks exactly like any tourist would expect. The environments are picturesque and the local people are friendly. The only opposition Joe and Julian face in the film other than the Germans are the white fighter pilots who don’t respect them.
The film feels unfocused at times because it’s trying to emotionally invest the audience but the situations these pilots are placed in while extremely difficult and unrewarding give us no reason to root for the characters. An example where characters actually emotionally connect with an audience can be found in last year’s The Help when Aibileen Clark lectures Hilly Holbrook towards the end of the film because Hilly is a horrible parent. Red Tails makes no attempt to try and deeply connect with the audience instead Lucas and his director Anthony Hemmingway paint Red Tails as a by the numbers period piece. Any depth about the actual achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen will only be found just before the films end credits and that’s of very little use to those who viewed the film. Red Tails attempts to fly high but crashes after takeoff due to poor character development and no focus on how the airmen conquered the oppression they faced beyond the dogfights they survived during the war.