Red Tails: A Review

So, I saw the movie.

Once more, George Lucas has done the impossible.

This time, he has taken a story and legacy fraught with tension and complexity; drama and pathos; heroism and patriotism and rendered it pedestrian and banal.

The Queen is now ready to be marched to the Gallows by the African American community.

Lucas said that he wanted to make a story for fourteen-year-old boys. Well most fourteen-year-old boys that I know like a little plot, and character development to go along with their fight scenes. To be fair, I do think the plot and execution could be summed up as a middle-schooler’s hastily-created-the-night-before book report:

“It’s about the Tuskegee Airmen. They were black. They didn’t let them fight in the war. Then they did. The white soldiers didn’t like them, but then the Airmen saved them. So then the white soldiers liked them. And they got a lot of medals. The End.”

Also to be fair, Lucas is only the Executive Producer of Red Tails. That is to say, the one who gets the money from all the black people that he coerced into seeing this by basically saying that if we don’t, then the Future of Colored Cinema is at stake. The fact that it was directed and written by three brilliant black artists, Anthony Hemmingway (Treme, The Wire) John Ridley (Three Kings) and( Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) is even more bewildering.

I could literally write a dissertation on why Red Tails fails first as a piece of cinema, and second as a fitting tribute to the heroes it claims to honor; but Wesley Morris (who will be joining me on the march to the hangman’s noose) does an excellent job articulating many of the issues I have with the piece. However, there are a couple of points I would like to make. If I didn’t, what sort of opinionated Gay would I be?

  • If you know little or nothing of the history of the Tuskegee Airmen before seeing the movie, you will not learn more by watching it. Despite the countless examples of exposition replacing badly needed action, the literary device is poorly used in telling us why this unit was formed.
  • Mr. Lucas apparently never shared with Mr. Hemmingway, Mr. Ridley and Mr. McGruder the reason that all good stories in general, and Star Wars in particular work: strong characters whom we care about. Instead of rich, complex characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, we get yet another set of one-dimensional archetypical black men.
  • A story that is based on systemic racism barely explores it in any substantive way—preferring instead to paint it in broad, primary colors. According to the movie, all you gotta do is save one white boy’s ass, and suddenly all white boys will respect and “get” you.

In the spirit of full disclosure, there were a couple of times when the audience with whom I saw the movie cheered lustily and loudly…and even clapped at the end. I, however, am enough of a Pompous Arts Snob to declare the response Pavlovian in nature: my people will clap for anything that has one of us in it.

I hope that the film does very well. I want the major studios to clamor for black movies. That way I can pitch a film that really tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. A story of fathers and sons, husbands and lovers, brothers and uncles, which actually explores what it’s like to show true courage in the face of blinding adversity.

You can take me away now, bitches.

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9 thoughts on “Red Tails: A Review

  1. I thought this would not be a good film as soon as I saw the previews. Too Disney-ized, which was also my gripe about The Color Purple. Sorry but I can’t part with my $10 (plus $20 for popcorn and soda!) to see this fairy tale.

  2. I actually teared up watching the previews. However I think it was a combination of the subject matter and the way that promos are cut. You’d think at my age I would know that any big budget flick starring blacks (or other people of color) is going to be homogenized so as to appeal to a mass audience. It isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a predictable and ineffectual one, imho.

  3. I’m genuinely sorry you were disappointed by this movie. I have not seen it, nor do I plan to, after reading your post. It’s frustrating that you had (even the slightest) hope that it wouldn’t be what it turned out to be, yet there it went. That sucks.

    • Please don’t let me stop you from seeing it! Remember, I’m a professed Pompous Arts Snob. I recognize that I look for things that many others don’t–and probably shouldn’t. I would really like to hear other people’s opinions. Maybe I’m just being too hard on it.

  4. The dogfights are fun but everything else is filled with corniness, lame acting, predictable story arc, and moments where the film feels like a video-game rather than based on a true story. A great story to be told, but told in a very poor way. Good review right here though. Give mine a look when you get the chance.

    • Honestly, I couldn’t even get into the dogfights. They all felt like a poor man’s version of x-wing and tie fighter chases from Star Wars. As you said in your review, there needs to be an element of danger. Fight sequences that work are mini-stories: they have a beginning, middle and end. And the best have all the elements of a good narrative. Instead of using those scenes to highlight the skills that made the Airmen so successful as a unit, they became generic examples of CGI.

      It is really cool to read your take on this and other films. Thanks for turning me onto your blog!

  5. I haven’t seen the movie, but you’re singing my tune when it comes to the disappointing lack of character development. It seems to be becoming more and more of a lost art in movies, I think. Well, in “blockbusters” anyway. I don’t know if it’s the tyranny of special effects or they’ve just decided that audiences’ attention spans have shortened so drastically that it would be lost on us. Or maybe that we’ve all become empathy-deficient and are no longer looking to connect with characters and walk around in their shoes for a couple of hours. Anyway, it’s pretty much how I judge movies. If you randomly change characters to suit the plot, or you just never develop characters beyond stock “types,” I’m really not buying in.

    And I LOVE your middle schooler’s book report! It’s SO spot on, and a really great way to make your point.

  6. I plan to see the film this weekend. I will buy popcorn and probably sigh a lot. I have to see it just for the flight sequences. My Dad and his six older brothers all learned to fly in the late 1930’s to early 40’s and my Dad still has a plane he restored from that era.

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