World War II was the last “great” war, especially for storytellers. It was the last time we could take the horrors of war and safely rely on the knowledge that the allied forces were fighting evil. Not an evil that was constructed by propaganda, but indisputable evil bent on world domination and ethnic cleansing. Recent war films and mini-series have centered on the gritty realism of battle, but Red Tails leaves that conflict on land and flies to the safety of the moral high-ground. It embraces the exhilaration of battle, throws back to the excitement of World War II dogfights, and puts its black heroes indisputably on the side of right in the face of adversity both at home and abroad. Elevated by stellar performances from Terrence Howard and David Oyelowo, Red Tails can be a bit shaky at times, but for the most part it’s always steady and hits its target.
War is raging across Europe in 1944, but black fighter pilots in Italy aren’t seeing any of the action. Although they have completed the Tuskegee program and are qualified to fly, the military deems them unfit for real missions based on their skin color. The pilots are stuck with hand-me-down planes and tasked with fighting trains and cars rather than sky Nazis. When their commanding officer, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Howard), gets them a mission to guard bombers, the squadron rises to the task and proves their mettle. However, the new responsibilities add stress on the relationship between team leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker) and his friend and ace pilot Joe “Lightning” Little (Oyelowo).
The action in Red Tails is as broad and straight-forward as the racial politics, which is why the movie works. Director Anthony Hemingway understands that he’s not making Band of Brothers with African-American characters and airplanes. He’s unafraid to go inside the cockpit and show his wounded pilots fighting for life, but he’s also not trying to show visceral gore of those wounds. It’s an admirable move considering he could have avoided the bloodshed and just shown every pilot going down in an explosion. Instead, he’s willing to compromise and put us on the edge of our seat as we hope a pilot will make it back to base, but we’re not reminded in vivid detail about how war is hell.
It’s a necessary compromise otherwise we couldn’t have fun with the excellent and exhilarating dogfights. On the ground, we see soldiers and we wonder, “How many of them are going to fall in battle?” In the air, we see the Red Tails (named after the red paint on their plane tails) flying with ease and we wonder, “How many Nazis are going to fall out of the sky?” The Red Tails are called in to protect the bombers because the white pilots keep hot-dogging it, forgetting their mission, and chasing after Nazi planes, which makes the bombers vulnerable. By contrast, the black pilots have to prove they’re the model pilots and we know they’re going to rise to the challenge. It is the movie’s simple but unshakable belief that moral righteousness will almost guarantee life, and if not, at least garner a noble sacrifice.
Red Tails isn’t interested in the complexities of war or the complexities of racial tension in the 1940s. It doesn’t need to be. Only racists will frown upon our lead characters and how they heroically risk their lives for their country. Every sane audience member will respect not only the selflessness of all soldiers, but the added merit of how these pilots fought racism at home for their right to fight enemies abroad. There’s no gray line here. It’s literally as simple as black and white, and so the film can get away with simple characters and big speeches. Red Tails isn’t trying to start a discussion. The discussion is over, the good guys won, and this is the celebration. The film’s greatest success is finding a way to balance respect with simplicity.
The cast goes a long way to blending the heroic with the human. No one in the cast gets rich, detailed characters, but the acting is strong enough to make us remember who everyone is, their fears, and their hopes. While none of the actors turn in a poor performance, all of them are completely overshadowed by Howard and Oyelowo. When Howard gives a speech, even the audience wants to follow him into battle. You understand that even if these pilots didn’t want to fight for a nation that made them second-class citizens, they would fight for Bullard. Oyelowo is equally magnetic, but in a more selfish fashion. Lightning is the daredevil who enjoys hitting back and is comfortable with his arrogance. Sadly, Parker can’t match Oyelowo and we’re left to wonder why these men are friends and why someone as milquetoast as Julian was tasked with leading his fellow pilots, especially when his best friend is undermining him at every turn.
This shortcoming is the downside of the movie’s approach. Red Tails is so constricted in clearly defining its roles, relationships, and values, and as a result it doesn’t allow for the complexity to make important relationships feel real. When we hear a character talk about his post-war plans, we can see him marked with a giant target because in movies those characters almost always die*. And because the movie is so determined to unambiguously tell the audience how to feel, it finishes a clumsy manner that feels dishonest to the story and the characters.
Red Tails knows its mission and while it may go a little off course from time to time, the film quickly rights itself and regains its bearings. At its heart, the movie is a throwback to when we didn’t have to seriously consider how war can tear apart a man’s body and soul. It wants to send us back to the grandeur and spectacle of magnificent aerial combat and but ground it in the historical importance of what the Red Tails accomplished. It’s not a film that will leave you thinking deeply about war and race. It’s a film that will leave you cheering for bravery and courage.
*Just ask Sam Neill in The Hunt for Red October. Oh wait, you can’t because he’s dead and he never got to see Montana.