Because I’ve been on the road essentially for a month straight, I haven’t gotten a chance to see Red Tails yet. Fortunately, reader JCS, has, and has some thoughts.
Red Tails is certainly not a great film. In fact, the critical consensus suggests that it’s not even a particularly good film. However, most of its critics proceed from a basic misunderstanding of its place in the combat film canon and the cultural work it does to restore African Americans to their rightful place in a history from which they often have been excluded.
This is not to suggest that the film is without its flaws. The overly long running time creates some pacing problems. The villains are devilishly cartoonish in the most Raiders of the Lost Ark way possible. The dialogue is often as corny as we’ve come to expect from any production that involves George Lucas. And, perhaps most jarring of all, the general atmosphere is more befitting a 1945 than a 2012 film, right down to the score. It is dated in many ways, but intentionally so.
Its throwback aesthetic to the World War II era combat film is a choice that structures the film’s other flawed components. Ignoring the historical conventions of this genre allows critics to judge Red Tails as the film they wish it was, instead of the film that it is. Take, for example, the clichéd characters of the 332nd fighter group. There’s Lightning (David Oyelowo), the maverick who plays by his own rules. His best friend, Easy (Nate Parker), is the by-the-book squad leader. There’s a “Joker” for comic relief, a devout “Deacon,” and even a couple of versions of “The Kid.”
These stock characters provoke some eye-rolling. But they represent a deliberate attempt by the screenwriters to place the Tuskegee Airmen firmly within the tradition of the combat film narrative. Archetypes like this have always been intrinsic to that genre’s formula. The filmmakers are educating contemporary audiences about African Americans’ role in World War II by placing them within a familiar popular cultural form. The actors’ exceptional performances make this possible. Specifically, the relationship between Lightning and Easy forms the film’s emotional core, getting the audience invested enough to forgive some of the production’s more hackneyed aspects. The entire cast is superb. The Wire alums (director Anthony Hemingway was an assistant director on 23 episodes) Tristan Wilds, Michael B. Jordan, and Andre Royo handle themselves with aplomb. Terrance Howard is as characteristically solid as Cuba Gooding, Jr. is uncharacteristically restrained. And Bryan Cranston and Gerald McRaney do well in minor roles as skeptical military brass.
It’s not the performances alone that make Red Tails’ flaws forgivable. Consider the troubled history of the production and the fact that it took executive producer George Lucas over 20 years to get the film made, eventually having to put up a considerable amount of the money himself. A film with a predominantly black cast shouldn’t have to be perfect or even above average to get made. Plenty of films with predominantly white casts have been clunkers, even within the combat film genre (Pearl Harbor comes to mind). Yet, subsequent attempts have no trouble getting produced. There is a treasure trove of stories to tell from African American history, and it’s important to our understanding of our country and our culture that those stories find funding and an audience.
Lucas has been much maligned in recent years – rightfully, in my view – for tinkering with his most successful creations, going back and inserting things that Star Wars fans see as a violation of their cherished childhood memories. Red Tails, in its way, is Lucas indulging this impulse to admirable effect. He’s going back into our historical memory to insert characters who should have always been there, with stories we should already know. The Tuskegee Airmen were a part of American history, not just African American history. Reminding us of this fact requires the hokey aspects of its production because he’s putting them back into the tradition of the combat film from which, for the most part, they’ve been wrongly excluded. So, if the dialogue is a little stilted, the villains cartoonish, and the story kind of corny, it’s a small price to pay for restoring balance to the force.
JCS is an American history PhD candidate specializing in twentieth century United States cultural and intellectual history. He is currently working on a dissertation about cultural representations of suburbia since World War II. You can follow him on Twitter here.