George Lucas is best known for his Star Wars series of films,
and, aside from the light saber battles between Jedis, the sequence at
the end of his 1977 original was probably his most memorable. It was
essentially an outer space dogfight between X-wing space ships. In
subsequent films, those dogfights were amped up with special effects,
but, despite the titles, those movies were less about what was going on
up in the sky, as they were about what was going on on the ground.
As I watched Red Tails, I certainly felt the influence of Lucas who is the producer and chief financier, as well as the influence of Star Wars. This story, however, is more about what's going on up in the sky. The opening sequence certainly sets this precedent. The opening is a glorious World War II aerial battle unlike you've ever seen.
Using NetFlix, I've gone back and watched several films involving aerial combat. I began with Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, which was dubbed the "Star Wars on Earth," according to Jerry Bruckheimer on that movie's DVD commentary. I would submit that Red Tails is the actual "Star Wars on Earth" but minus all the family melodrama and Jedi mumbo jumbo.
In lieu of the mumbo jumbo, we get a significant and highly overlooked piece of history that has really been broached only twice on any kind of grand scale. That piece of history is the service of African-Americans in the U.S. military. Ed Zwick broached the subject in Glory (1989) and Spike Lee did the same in Miracle at St. Anna (2008). But, again, both those movies were about what was happening on the ground.
Red Tails tells of the Tuskegee airmen and their historic missions in Italy 1944. The movie quotes a 1925 U.S. Army War College study that concluded that African-Americans weren't fit to fight in aerial combat. Everyone here is aware of the racism that existed, but this movie doesn't dwell in this racism. This movie dwells on what this group of young African-Americans could do, as opposed to what they couldn't.
The Tuskegee airmen weren't the first black airmen. Bessie Coleman was actually the first black female to get an aviation license in 1921. Hubert Julian, "The Black Eagle of Harlem," drew headlines for his aviation in 1922 and James Herman Banning in 1932 became the first black aviator to fly from coast to coast, from Los Angeles to Long Island, NY. Yet, it wasn't until 1941 that the government authorized or rather forced the military to create an all-black air unit of which the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was a training school.
The 99th Flying Squadron was formed, specifically for African-Americans and out of that came the 332nd Fighter Group, which is the group that this movie focuses. Many men were trained but many of them weren't allowed to enter the frontlines, considered still to be inferior, even though the graduates rose in the ranks to officers just as proficiently as any white man. It took some pushing and some bravery but eventually those Tuskegee airmen in Italy got to take to the sky in real battles. Those men were nicknamed "Red Tails" in light of the color painted on the rear of the P-51 Mustangs that they ultimately flew.
Director Anthony Hemingway who is known more for directing TV shows like Treme and CSI: NY tackles his first feature film here and he wrangles an excellent ensemble of young black actors in what Lucas is dubbing the first all-black action film. Obviously, there have been action films with black characters in the lead. Will Smith has starred in quite a few of them, but, as far as I've seen, there has never been an action film, one that required $100 million to make, where the cast was predominantly African-American.
We're first introduced to the 332nd's four best pilots. Each is called by their nicknames. The first is Easy, played by Nate Parker (Pride and The Great Debaters). He's the captain of the group, the leader when in the air. He's straight-laced, always wanting to follow protocol, mostly because he's under pressure and doesn't want to take any risks that would cause him to lose a man and he never wants to give up on any man under his command.
This is in contrast to Lightning, played by David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland and Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Lightning is impulsive, a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and go-with-my-gut kind of guy. Some might call him reckless. Some may see him as just passionate. He disagrees and often disobeys Easy's orders in order to do whatever he feels will stop the Germans. He also does whatever he feels will get the Italian girl. Like in Miracle at St. Anna, as well as Flyboys (2006), Lightning has a romance with a girl whom speaks a different language.
Based on the book by John B. Holway, John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's screenplay centers a lot on Easy and Lightning, but it also allows us to get to know a half-dozen more. We get to know them, and not just in a passing way. This movie gives each of its characters a chance to stand out and bring in different aspects and experiences that comprised the uniqueness of the Tuskegee airmen. That includes Tristan Wilds (The Wire and 90210) who plays Ray Gun, a Tuskegee P.O.W., as well as Marcus T. Paulk (Moesha and The Proud Family) who plays Deke, a rookie who is guided mostly by faith and love of country.
In fact, all these young men act for the love of country. Again, the racism aspect is minor, as the Tuskegee airmen had to fight in order to be able to fight, but the real crux is the fortitude and wits of these men to accomplish what they did.
The aerial combats are amazing. It's not Top Gun in that Hemingway and his team didn't film actual fighter jets as they flew around. He's no Howard Hughes doing Hell's Angels. Using techniques that Lucas used over 30 years ago, along with the CGI and motion capture tricks that have become common, Hemingway crafts aerial combats that are thrilling and in many ways beautiful. Hemingway and his team put us right in the cockpits and keep us there in the best ways.
The supporting cast is superb. They include Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire), Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), and future award winners, in my estimation, Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) and Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights). All these men contribute greatly to this film. It's strong. It's exciting. It's fun. It's the best movie that George Lucas has ever produced. No, it may not ever make as much money or receive as many accolades as Star Wars, but what he's done here is so much more important.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for war violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs.
Red Tails made the cover of Ebony magazine. Here is a link to that article. http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/red-tails-the-black-top-gun