With Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Daniela Ruah. Written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. Directed by Anthony Hemingway. Rated PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence). 125 minutes.
RED TAILS is a project that “Star Wars” creator George Lucas has shepherded to the screen, despite first-time director Anthony Hemingway being at the helm. It’s the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black World War II squadron that was designed to fail and went on to be among the most decorated units in the war. Although the story has been told before, it bears repeating.
Colonel A. J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) has his work cut out for him. His men are flying secondhand planes that barely hold together and are given “missions” that keep them far away from the war. His superiors don’t believe “colored” soldiers are equipped to be in the frontline of battle. Not all of them feel that way, though, and eventually the men get a mission of major importance. They are to escort the “Flying Fortresses” whose mission it is to bomb Germany into submission. Being an escort may seem like a secondary role, but it is their job to fight off (and shoot down) the German planes going after the bombers. It turns out they are very good at this.
This would be just another World War II movie but for two things. First, it is the story of how “Negro” soldiers proved their worth and eventually won the respect they deserved. Early on we see Joe Little (David Oyelowo) being told that even though he is an officer, the officer’s club is for whites only. Later in the film, Little and several of the other airmen are welcomed into the club by the grateful pilots of the bombers who acknowledge they owe their lives to the black airmen. Stories of how ignorance and prejudice are overcome are always worth telling.
The other thing is the use of CGI (i.e., digital computer effects) to take us into the air and into the dogfights with the Germans. Short of documentary footage of actual air battles, this may as close to seeing what it’s like to be in an air war up on the big screen. The good guys are easy to spot because their planes have been painted red in the back, giving them a distinctive look as well as the title for the movie. Their swooping and maneuvering is like a game of three-dimensional chess.
Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (sporting a pipe) are good as the officers caught between racism above and frustration below, but it is the young actors playing the pilots who deserve most of our attention. Chief among them are Oyelowo as a hot dog who doesn’t always follow orders but also finds himself in a romance with a local Italian woman (Daniela Ruah). Nate Parker has the less showy role of Captain Martin “Easy” Julian, who tries to lead his men and but secretly drinks to numb the pain and the pressure. He has to learn that the key to leadership is not always knowing the right thing to do, but simply being able to make decisions.
In many ways, “Red Tails” is an old-fashioned movie, but for younger viewers who haven’t seen most of the films about WWII it will seem fresh and original. Even those who are well-versed in the genre will find a lot to like in this solidly told story of men proving they have what it takes not only to others but to themselves.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.