There have been documentaries and films about this group of men. The most recent is “Red Tails” by George Lucas, opening today. Led by Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. and Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, this film is a fictionalized account of these pilots during WWII. They were recognized by the red paint on their planes’ tails and are remembered for their service.
A group of young black actors, including Nate Parker and Tristan Wilde, and singer Ne-Yo portray a wide range of airmen who want to serve their country and get the same level of respect as their white counterparts. While the 332nd Fighter Group is under the command of Major Emmanuel Stance (Gooding) at Ramitelli Air Base in Italy, Col. A.J. Bullard (Howard) is in D.C. at the Pentagon trying to keep the program by convincing military officials of the airmen’s value and valor.
The airmen never doubt their ability and refuse to be limited by their shoddy aircraft. They are just as committed as any other airman, although they are not held to the same esteem. They are victorious in the air, but yearn to take on bigger missions.
Marty “Easy” Julian (Parker) is the leader of the fighters, but Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) is the best pilot. “Easy” is straightlaced, while “Lightning” is a rule-breaker. The two men have a tense relationship. There is a brotherly love between them as well as a power struggle which plays out throughout the film. The younger pilots include Ray “Junior” Gannon (Wilde), David “Deacon” Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) and Andrew “Smoky” Salem (Ne-Yo).
Reports reflect Hollywood’s reluctance to back a film of this nature. However, Lucas wanted this story told. The film effortlessly displays the brotherhood between the pilots, something that carries on for the surviving members.
Unfortunately, the script is weak and overshadows the pilots’ legacy. I wanted this movie to be so much better than it was and was disappointed. There have been other movies on historical black servicemen – “Miracle at St. Anna” and “Men of Honor” among them – but this one was not on the same level.
Aaron McGruder of “The Boondocks” served as a screenwriter, and I think this was part of the problem. Although some of his sarcastic humor is evident in the writing, it provided inconsistencies in what should have been a more dramatic film. Howard’s trademark diction – serious and firm – does not mix well with Ne-Yo forcing a deep Southern accent for no apparent reason, other than for a comedic element.
The movie is not short on action, but there was too much dialogue in the air. When you have pilots making joke after joke while shooting Nazis, it just doesn’t add up. This is a serious matter, not a comedy club.
The screenwriters might have been trying to add banter between the pilots, but it didn’t always work. There was also an awkward love story with “Lightning” and an Italian woman that could have been left out completely.
However, all is not lost. The high points of “Red Tails” were the dramatic moments, and it was here when the movie soared. Nevertheless, the intent of the film is underplayed by poor execution. However, it does help to educate others about the importance of the Tuskegee Airmen. I can only hope the film will appeal to a mass audience. Gooding and Howard have been able to garner mainstream success in an array of films, and I think they shoulder the same task in “Red Tails.”
For the young actors, it is refreshing to see them in a movie that doesn’t require them to be a gangster, a drug dealer or dress up like an old woman for a laugh. Although “Red Tails” fell short in some areas, this film will still give more credibility to this group of actors in the long run.