February 7, 2012

Red Tails Misses the Mark

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It might come as a surprise for many to hear that George Lucas is involved with a movie that isn’t part of either the illustrious Star Wars or Indiana Jones series. What’s even more unexpected is that Lucas’ latest film, Red Tails, has been in development for well over 25 years. Red Tails is a faithful historical tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, an all African American fighter pilot group that served the United States during World War II. This is the first movie made by Lucas Films in almost 18 years that doesn’t have a pre-established franchise, and was made at a staggering cost of 58 million dollars. George Lucas fought very hard to make this film because he felt that Hollywood consistently underrepresents African Americans. The struggle against prejudice both at home and against the Nazis could really bring to light this issue in Hollywood in an allegorical fashion. But the question still remains:  Does Lucas present a moving historical picture about the struggles of WWII African American fighter pilots, while keeping us engaged?

The film has all the necessary elements to develop into a gripping story line and to coax  deep emotions moments from the characters. Yet it fails to deliver. True to his directorial form, Lucas includes spectacular visual effects and thrilling aerial battle sequences. One truly appreciates the subtlety with which the sci-fi battles in Star Wars are authentically translated into a much older technological framework.

But the big problem with Red Tails is the static nature of the characters. The characters battle racism and poverty at home before they are drafted to serve in Europe in a backwater air unit. Ultimately, the characters succeed in winning respect as the guardian angels of bombing missions. The various characters have lots of potential for development, but disappointingly we see only stereotypes till the end. Any character development is indicated only by stock motifs, such as giving up alcohol to remember a friend’s memory or an ace pilot sacrificing himself to bring down a veteran German enemy.

In the first part of the film, the Tuskegee Airmen are forced to fly patrols in very old planes far behind the front lines and relegated to shooting down Nazi ground vehicles. African Americans are officially considered by the army not to be intelligent enough to pilot a plane; higher-ups judge the Tuskegee experiment a failure and threaten to shut the program down. As a last attempt to prove that his men are as capable as white pilots, Col. A. J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) accepts a dangerous mission to escort heavy bombers to their targets deep in enemy territory. They perform outstandingly; they don’t lose any fighters and succeed in taking down  the entire enemy airbase. The film also shows the appreciation by white bomber pilots for their efforts, as the Airmen are eventually invited to an all-white officers’ club from which they had been shunned earlier.

The two main protagonists are leaders of the squad, Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), his best friend and the best pilot in the squad. While the movie mainly focuses on the stories of these two characters, it also offers glimpses into the stories of some of the large supporting cast. Easy struggles with drinking and Lightning falls in love with an Italian woman. However, in the context of the film, these sub-plots become irrelevant, as they have no true impact on the main storyline and individually conclude in over-the-top melodramatic shots. Because of this, despite the entertaining performances from the lead actors and the supporting cast, the subplots are merely fillers meant to manipulate the audience into becoming invested in the lead characters.

This same problem of flat characters is also applicable to the film’s Nazi antagonists, who are depicted as almost cartoonish caricatures. While it’s easy to make a Nazi character appear evil, it is much more difficult to see them as multi-dimensional and interesting characters. Red Tails also fails in this regard, especially with reference to the film’s main antagonist, “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen), who is unable do much in the way of acting, despite shouting angry racist slurs from his cockpit (which itself could have become the basis of exploring “multicultural” Nazi racism, but this is another opportunity missed by Lucas).

While Red Tails has a great and uplifting message about endurance in the face of adversity, as well as engaging and complex aerial battle sequences, there are too many problems with the film. It could have become an iconic film about overcoming adversity; if only Lucas had followed a fewer number of characters over a longer period of time to give each character more depth. It might have depicted the prejudice against the future pilots lives back in America, and set that against their own decision to overcome prejudice and fight for their country. Tracing their lives before they arrived in Europe — even via flashbacks — might have provided precisely such a framework for the audience to better appreciate the complex travails of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Original Author: Rehan Dadi