Thursday, January 19, 2012

'Red Tails' offers a fleet history lesson

A rudimentary look at the battles the Tuskegee Airmen fought.

It's hardly surprising that the George Lucas-financed Red Tails puts lots of energy into flying sequences that evoke the terror and excitement of airborne battle.

Of course, Red Tails has more on its mind than zooming action. The movie also aims for social significance, telling the story of the Tuskegee Airman, black pilots who overcame prejudice and long odds to make significant contributions to the World War II combat effort.

Red Tails isn't the first feature to tackle the Tuskegee story, another being The Tuskegee Airman, a 1995 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne. The action in Red Tails may be a lot spiffier than what you'll find in its 1995 counterpart, but I found the older movie to be more comprehensive, more interesting and better acted - although both may be more earnest than they need to be.

As directed by Anthony Hemingway, from a screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, Red Tails rides on bursts of bold action and straightforward exposition, some of which points out the alarming contradictions faced by airmen fighting for a country that didn't fully accept their humanity.

These highly educated men were relegated to flying behind-the-lines missions until a determined colonel (Terrence Howard) convinced a wary and sometimes bigoted Washington hierarchy that the Tuskegee Airmen -- stationed in Italy at the time - deserved a chance to fight.

Supposedly drawn from interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, the drama in Red Tails nonetheless has a cookie-cutter feel that limits the efforts of a large and appealing cast.

The screenplay's two main Tuskegee pilots are Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) and Martin "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker.) Little and Julian are best friends but have fundamental disagreements that revolve around Julian's drinking and Little's risk-taking.

Cuba Gooding Jr., who appeared in the HBO movie, joins Howard as a ranking officer. He seems to be trying to provide all his scenes with an exclamation point by determinedly stuffing a pipe into his mouth.

Perhaps to add dramatic variety, Red Tails has Oyelowo's Little strike up a relationship with an Italian woman (Daniela Ruah). Maybe someone thought a few quiet moments were necessary to punctuate the atmosphere of robust camaraderie surrounding the fliers, who can be intensely competitive with one another.

Lucas has said that he had to finance the picture and pay for its distribution because studios shied away from an all-black cast. That may be true, and Lucas is to be commended for having the persistence to stay with a project that he began thinking about in 1988, but Red Tails can't be called a complete success.

In achieving some of the old-fashioned zeal for which it must have been aiming, Red Tails sacrifices much of the edge we've come to expect from the best war movies.

That's not to say that Red Tails is without value. Young audiences in particular may know little or nothing about the segregated quality of civilian and military life during the 1940s. Deficiencies aside, Red Tails offers a zippy - if rudimentary -- history lesson, as well as plenty of affirmation of the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen.

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