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Review: Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails (2012)

Directed by: Anthony Hemingway

Premise: The story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American pilots, who achieved distinction during World War II.

What Works: The aerial scenes of Red Tails are impressive and some of the best scenes of air-to-air combat seen since Top Gun. Within these scenes Red Tails has a few impressive images, such as shots from within Allied bombers under attack. 

What Doesn’t: Red Tails is a bad film and it fails in most of the basic elements of storytelling. Red Tails’ narrative is patterned after the template of a sports story. Typically in this kind of story a group of unwanted misfits work together to achieve a common goal and in the process they learn the value of hard work and the audience learns lessons about accepting differences. If Red Tails did that and did it successfully, the film might be acceptable but the filmmakers manage to foul up every element of the story.  Red Tails doesn’t have characters; it doesn’t even have stereotypes. The whole cast of Red Tails are largely interchangeable faces. None of the characters get beyond one dimension and few have any distinguishing characteristics. They are made even more unreal by bad dialogue that snaps the viewer out of the film. The high profile actors in the film, such as Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., phone-in their performances but the actors should be exempt from criticism because no amount of acting would compensate for the problems with Red Tails’ script.  The film misjudges how to tell its story, starting with its failure to provide any learning curve for the pilots. They begin the film as excellent aviators and so the characters and the story have nowhere to go; they don’t have to learn new skills or go through any struggle to improve. There is also no coherent antagonist for the heroes to work against. Between the direct threat of the Axis Powers and the racist elements within the American military, a story of the Tuskegee Airmen ought to be overflowing with adversaries but Red Tails only presents opposition to its heroes in a generic way, such as a virtually anonymous German pilot known as “Pretty Boy” and obtuse comments by white Americans. The lack of any concrete opposition all but eliminates the drama of the film since without adversity there is no struggle or risk and therefore no heroism. Instead of a rousing story about overcoming challenges, Red Tails is a very flat story with little dramatic rise and fall. The narrative problems of Red Tails are underlined by its thematic problems. In Red Tails the African American airmen encounter racism from whites in the military but overcome intolerance by proving their aviation skill. Although the film is attempting to make a positive statement about overcoming adversity, it makes that point in a troubling way. In much the same way that The Help suggested that systemic racism will be overcome by pranks and writing a memoir, Red Tails portrays the Tuskegee Airmen as defeating centuries of racism by mastering aviation. This leads to an underlying problem as Red Tails reinforces the idea that members of an oppressed class must prove themselves to their oppressors before they can be seen as equals. This is an important and critical flaw of Red Tails, although it is ultimately no different than many other stories dealing with race such as Driving Miss Daisy or Cool Runnings.

Bottom Line: Red Tails has some thematic problems but what really bring it down are bad dialogue, flat characters, and a boring story. It simply isn’t a good film.

Episode: #374 (February 5, 2012)