Directed by first-time feature director Anthony Hemmingway and produced by Star Wars director George Lucas, Red Tails is the untold story of a squadron of African- American fighter pilots during World War II. Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrance Howard and David Oyelowo, the plot centres on a group of maverick pilots relegated to minor missions. Finally, the squadron are given the chance to prove themselves in a series of special missions but at the same time have to battle discrimination on the ground.
The historical element of the story promises a great film; all the material is there: a fight against adversity told against the backdrop of a war-torn 1940’s Europe. Despite this potential, Red Tails is a disappointingly bland war film. The plight of the fighter pilots is cheaply explored and lacks any genuine conflict. Isolated in a black-only squadron base there is little chance for the central protagonist to happen across conflict in order to drive the narrative forward. There are moments in a local officer’s bar where this is attempted but, like most scenes in the film, they too are rushed. Hemmingway has attempted to capture too much and consequently fails to generate the gravitas that audiences might expect of a film with such a subject matter. Instead, we are given an overly polished SFX show packed full of dull dogfights and enough explosions to make Michael Bay blush. The action never generates any peril; instead audiences are treated to clumsy exposition where they are practically told in advance how the dangerous situations will turn out.
The origins of Red Tails go back to 1988 when Lucas came across the story. At the time it was felt that production companies would not fund a film with a predominately black cast. Whilst there may be some truth in this, it seems equally likely that producers would not touch this film due to its weak script. The low-level writing attempts to tick all the boxes that make a movie profitable (interesting premise, big effects, plenty of explosions) but the result is a ramshackle affair with plenty of superfluous subplots (most notably a POW story) and racial clichés. It is somewhat ironic that a film that explores the fight for racial equality chooses to portray the German pilots in a stereotypical way. This is one of many examples that show that Red Tails is a dated film which could have been made in the early post war period.
It must be said that the cast have done the best job they could with a weak script. They had to play second fiddle to Lucas’ child-like obsession with WWII fighter planes. Between them they managed to make what is a very dull film bearable.