George Lucas is not improving his standing as a filmmaker with Red Tails, or maybe we call it Star Wars 1944.
I try to withhold overt contempt for individual directors or actors in my reviews. I make exceptions to that rule with people like Martin Lawrence, Adam Sandler and Brett Ratner. Oh, and also George Lucas, a man who has come to embody all that is evil and wretched about film — from his endless tinkering of Star Wars and its re-release bonanza, his laughable prequel trilogy, the plundering of his fans’ wallets and his emphasis of CGI-action over all else.
Very little about George Lucas does not make me seethe in frustration. And before you email me, yes, the first Star Wars was a classic. Now go look up who wrote and directed the rest of the great first trilogy (not George Lucas) and who wrote and directed the horrible prequel trilogy (all George Lucas). With Red Tails, Lucas brings all his filmmaking faults to the table: green-screen melodrama, wooden performances delivered within knotty dialogue, and an understanding of women that is so simplistic that I wondered aloud if Lucas had ever actually met a woman that wasn’t wearing a Queen Amidala costume. What shocked me most — more than the dumbing down of a great historical tale — was that Lucas didn’t write or direct Red Tails, though his fingerprints are all over it. (Lucas did produce the film with his own money, and it’s being marketed as a Lucas picture.)
Red Tails is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of all-black fighter pilots who punched holes through the sky during World War II. These were brave, honorable men and they deserve a better movie to commemorate their service. What they got was a typical Hollywood action juggernaut, one that only paints the broadest of strokes when it comes to what these men encountered on their many adventures in the sky over
North Africa, Italy and then the rest of Europe.
Aside from several scenes showing white men talking down to the pilots or just being blatant racists, Red Tails seems to whitewash the story, or it frames it for white audiences using the most basic language and ideas — “You’re black, but you saved my life so let me buy you a drink.” What did these men feel? Was it a personal struggle to fight for a country that viewed them as less than a man? Were they fighting to beat the Nazis, or to prove their worth in a racist world? Such questions are not bothered asked here. But when it comes to a black man escaping from a POW camp, a white soldier tells him, “At least you won’t be seen in the dark.” It’s meant to be a joke, but it feels disingenuous and mean. The audience I saw it with half groaned and half laughed — a strained response.
The film has a large ensemble cast, including many of the actors from HBO’s The Wire (Bubbles, Michael, Cheese, Officer Dozerman, Wallace), though who stars in the picture is hard to tell. The film seems to have the same syndrome that afflicted Phantom Menace — who was the star? The likely leads are Easy (Nate Parker), the squad leader with a drinking problem; Lightning (David Oyelowo), the hotshot ace with an attitude problem; or Raygun (Tristan Wilds), the novice. The film focuses mostly on Easy and Lightning’s strained friendship, though often meanders away, occasionally joining Terrance Howard while he lobbies military brass for the Tuskegee Airmen, or Cuba Gooding Jr., who chomps on a pipe in a big sweeping gesture that could almost classify as a workout routine.
I love these actors. The dialogue does not. They are often given woefully second-rate dialogue, or just simple one-liners that are only a notch or two above Hayden Christensen whining about being a Jedi. At one point Lightning says, “Take that, Mr. Hitler,” after blowing up a German destroyer single handedly with only his plane’s machine guns (!!!). Often times the dialogue is just painful as these talented young actors are forced to utter things in a way no human has done before.
Much was made of the critical failure of Pearl Harbor, a war story dramatized to such an obscene degree that it alienated war veterans and embarrassed
for its callous exploitation of historical events. Red Tails is only a slight improvement. Its grasp of history is
firm, but it plays fast and loose with the details, including making the
dogfights look much more exciting than they probably were. At least the
CGI-effects are nifty. The film really nails the sense of speed and
exhilaration of flying through the skies dodging Luftwaffe fighters and
smoke-trailed bullets. Unfortunately, it all feels like the dogfights from Star Wars — Lucas even recycles the Red
1, Red 2 and Red Leader callsigns. Or did he steal from the Hollywood when he made Star Wars? Tuskegee
It saddens me to realize that this was the Tuskegee Airmen’s last shot at a motion picture based on their exploits. They’re all getting up in age, and it’s unlikely that another film will be made before they’re all gone. I just hope they feel that Red Tails did them right. Because from my point of view, it trivialized their greatness.