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Saturday, January 21, 2012
Bravery, Patriotism And Heroism, For First Among Equals
The cast of Anthony Hemingway's "Red Tails", with Nate Parker, center, and David
Oyelowo, right, in sunglasses.
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
January 21, 2012
Anthony Hemingway's "Red Tails" follows the path of the African-American fighter
pilot regiment known as The Tuskegee Airmen, who had been grounded by the U.S.
Army during World War Two, but later finally flew missions first as protectors,
then as fighters against the Nazis as they invaded Italy. George Lucas's
executive-produced film, which opened in the U.S. and Canada yesterday, takes
place in that country in 1944. (For the record, Mr. Lucas has been trying
to get "Red Tails" to the big screen for about 25 years, if not more.
Studios told him all-black casts would mean marketing difficulties for them.)
Under the overall command of Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard), led by flight
leader Easy (Nate Parker) and galvanized by the plane-flying heroics of
Lightning (David Oweloyo), the team of Tails fly dozens of life-threatening
missions and use their skill to execute successful flights to defeat the Nazis.
Populated by immense Lucasfilm special effects -- where the money in this film
is really spent -- the flight raids are astounding and death-defying to watch,
but the personal stories of the African-American pilots themselves are dwarfed
by the effects, and have neither the depth, significance nor investigation to
make "Red Tails" more than the shallow tribute to American history's largely
unsung heroes that it is.
Written by John Ridley and "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder, the dialogue
lacks punch and is wooden and mechanical, echoing clichés of familiar rah-rah
inspiration in gung-ho war films. The film's pride in its heroes and its
patriotism is its hallmark, and while there are rousing and moving moments here
and there, they feel muted even as they are exalted.
There's an oddly distant feeling I had while watching scenes that were supposed
to have greater emotional impact, and worse yet, "Red Tails" works hard to make
you emote, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. I was infuriated by an
event that occurs late on in the film and the reaction to it by some of the
fellow characters. It felt hollow, as did "Red Tails" as a whole, and I
wish a deeper exploration of the characters' lives had occurred.
Much of "Red Tails" is cursory, including its exploration of the racial
discrimination the Tuskegee Airmen faced from their white compatriots within the
U.S. Army. With everybody's most hated villains the cardboard Nazis on the
attack, little else is explained other than the obvious. I expected more,
especially from such proficient and skilled writers as Mr. Ridley and Mr. McGruder, and I was hugely disappointed.
"Red Tails" looks like a pastiche of sorts, with a fleeting love story that
withers in the wind despite good intentions. As soon as Mr. Hemingway's
film gets close to achieving a sense of depth and richness, it retreats.
We never get sufficient time to know any of the characters, only that one of
them, Easy, drinks, and that another, Lightning, wants to marry Sofia (NCIS star
Daniela Ruah), a beautiful Italian woman he meets. Yet there was enough
time to spend with the courageous men: "Red Tails" is more than two hours long,
and a largely empty, unremarkable experience. The characters aren't drawn
solidly; they essentially float.
Is there a fervor, spirit and pride that "Red Tails" evokes? Undoubtedly,
and this is what many audience members and patriots, particularly
African-Americans, will feel. Yet the groundswell that is achieved is
belated, forced and underwhelming. Much of what leads to the hurrah
moments are unfulfilling, making the inevitable jubilation and triumph Pyrrhic.
"Red Tails" -- and the film's sound in the theater I saw it in was muted in comparison
to the preceding ear-splitting trailers -- may have played better on television;
indeed HBO's TV movie on The Tuskegee Airmen starring Laurence Fishburne several
years ago had a gravitas that Mr. Hemingway's film sorely lacks.
Mr. Oweloyo has charisma and an expressive way, and he's a talented British
actor who will go on to do great things. (He played the greedy corporate
man in last year's
"Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes".) Cuba
Gooding Jr. plays a Major who mostly scowls or wears one expression, often with
a pipe in his mouth. He looks as if he'll bite that pipe stem off.
Mr. Howard as always is a palpable presence, and effective here as the film's
touchstone of pride, confidence and audacity. Mr. Parker gets better with
each film, and has a natural leadership and intelligence that rounds his
character, whose surface treatment is undeserved. The camaraderie among
the black regiment in the film is strangely stilted. The film's opening
titles, in bright red and black shadow, look amateurish, like something out of a
low-budget '70s film.
Terrence Blanchard's music score is discreet unlike his score in Spike Lee's
"Miracle At St.
Anna", from which a few jazz notes are borrowed. (Mr. Lee's
film, about the ground forces of Buffalo Soldiers of the all-African-American
infantry forces in World War Two, was forceful and compelling.) Some of
the lines in Mr. Ridley and Mr. McGruder's script may be borrowed too, namely
those referring to an episode where the word "colored" is delineated amidst
mixed company. Forgive the minor quibble, but if memory serves correctly,
I believe I may have heard those lines before Mr. McGruder wrote them -- I won't
spoil them -- at least 20 years ago. Regardless, the writer's usual
sharpness and cutting edge social commentary is absent from "Red Tails".
When all is said and done, "Red Tails" fires brightly but fizzles early.
Indeed, there was so much more to be done, and despite the admirable
efforts of the actors, many behind the camera dropped the ball. As they
say in the trade: no guts, no glory. The real Tuskegee Airmen deserved a
better tribute than the one "Red Tails" gives them.
With: Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Leslie Odom Jr., Method Man, Kevin Phillips,
Matthew Marsh, Lee Tergesen, Aml Ameen, Okezie Morro, Barnaby Kay, Bryan
Cranston, Gerald McRaney.
"Red Tails" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of
America for some sequences of war violence. The film's
running time is two hours and five minutes.
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