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Red Tails
Tristan Wilds as Ray "Ray Gun" Gannon with executive producer George Lucas.

Movie Review: Red Tails (REVISED)

Inspired by the high-flying, heroic and historic Tuskegee Airmen, Lucasfilm brings to the big screen “Red Tails,” starring  Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. Sidewalks’ Jeanne & J.P. have their reviews. 

Red Tails

David Oyelowo as Joe "Lightning" Little. Photo by: Jiri Hanzl. Lucasfilm LTD. and TM. All Rights Reserved.

Twentieth Century Fox / LucasFilm
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
Stars: Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Gerald McRaney, and David Oyelowo

Studio Synopsis:
RED TAILS is an exciting and emotional action-packed film that tells the story of everyday heroes rising above extraordinary challenges. Inspired by the heroics and valor of the first all-African American aerial combat unit, the film follows the Tuskegee Airmen as they shatter all doubts and prejudices with excellence in the air and on the ground.

Executive Producer George Lucas dedicated over 23 years to Red Tails, patiently developing the script and seeking out a director who could bring his vision to life and deliver an adventure film of stirring heroics that have come to define the Lucasfilm moniker.

Twentieth Century Fox will distribute the film, due in theaters January 20, 2012.

Under the direction of Anthony Hemingway (Treme, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood), Red Tails uses the historic backdrop of World War II to tell the story of a cast of men, drawn from many walks of life, who were united in their desire to fight for their country against a daunting enemy.

The men’s camaraderie, courage and exceptional skills create a rousing adventure as the Red Tails fight the perils facing the Allied forces in the European theater. Meanwhile, in the halls of the Pentagon, one man fights so that the men under his charge are afforded the opportunity to prove their mettle in war.

Red Tails is a multi-layered film, taking viewers inside the cockpit during spectacular gut-wrenching aerial dogfights, as well as into the hearts and minds of the pilots, crewmen and leaders during World War II.

The film’s ensemble cast includes Oscar® winner Cuba Gooding Jr., Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith aka Method Man, Kevin Phillips,  Lee Tergesen, Andre Royo, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Marcus T. Paulk, Leslie Odom Jr., Michael B. Jordan and Daniela Ruah.

The film is being produced by Rick McCallum and Charles Floyd Johnson.

At its heart, Red Tails aspires to honor the bravery, excellence and heroism of the men that served as Tuskegee Airmen by introducing their story to all generations through a thrilling action adventure story. In this way, the film looks to educate and entertain a generation about these true American heroes who forever put to rest the misplaced belief that African Americans lacked the courage, discipline and intelligence to be fighter pilots. Against all odds, these men fought to the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last minute, to the last man and won the admiration of the world.

Red Tails

Terrence Howard as Col. A.J. Bullard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Major Emanuel Stance. Lucasfilm LTD. and TM. All Rights Reserved.

Jeanne’s Take:
“Red Tails” from Lucas Studios is being released with many advantages – major funding, well-known actors, a significant online presence and heroes you can believe in. Producer George Lucas is known internationally for adventure films such as “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars,” as well as the digital technology which revolutionized the way action films are made.

Whether the American public is ready for a film with African American military heroes is anyone’s guess, despite the success of “Glory” in 1989 with Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.

Lucas had to use his own money to finance “Red Tails,” which is analogous to Mel Gibson having to finance “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 and Spike Lee being forced to send an SOS to the African American community in 1992 to secure continued funding for “Malcolm X.” When you have a curriculum vitae on the level of Lucas, Gibson or Lee, financing your own film is not supposed to happen. But if Hollywood does not like the subject matter, such a producer or director has to dig into his own pocket or – in Spike Lee’s case – reach out to Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, etc.

African American troops served in segregated units from 1866 to 1948. The Tuskegee Airmen were an all-black unit of the Army Air Force (USAAF); the pilots were trained separately and deployed separately throughout World War II. Unlike African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War (1861-1865), the Tuskegee Airmen had black officers.

When the black pilots finally get a chance to fly the new P-51s, instead of second-rate equipment cast off by white units, they paint them with red noses and red tails. Military units often have distinctive colors or symbols identifying them clearly in battle.

Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuel Stance and Terrence Howard as Col. A. J. Bullard are convincing as the men who have to do hard political fighting against racism in the Department of War, in order to get the black pilots assigned to air combat, rather than simply bombing enemy transport trucks and trains behind the lines.

Gooding as the commanding officer displays theatrical gestures as he disciplines and inspires his men; perhaps he is calming his own fears while keeping his men convinced things will go their way. Cuba Gooding Jr. also appeared in the 1995 television drama, “The Tuskegee Airmen,” with Laurence Fishburne.

Terence Howard distinguished himself in “Crash,” a 2005 film with Thandie Newton and Don Cheadle. He also created a memorable character in “The Brave One” opposite Jodie Foster in 2007, and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” with Halle Berry in 2005.

Nate Parker plays a troubled officer who doubts his own ability to lead, and is tempted by alcohol. He previously appeared in “Secret Life of Bees” with Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys, and in “The Great Debaters” with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker.

The accomplishments of African American military veterans have been documented by others. In 2005 actor Tim Reid narrated “The Invisible Men of Honor: The Legend of the Buffalo Soldiers.” And he directed a documentary entitled “Blacks in the Military,” screened at Fayetteville State University in 2009. These documentaries contain footage about the Red Ball Express which operated 24/7 in support of General George Patton’s army in Europe, and about black troops who fought German soldiers in Tuscany in 1944 (see Spike Lee’s film, “Miracle at St. Anna”). Reid criticized Steven Spielberg’s film, “Saving Private Ryan,” for omitting African American troops. And director Spike Lee criticized Clint Eastwood for similar omissions in his films about Iwo Jima.

In demeanor and dialogue, the airmen of “Red Tails” remind us that 1944 America was schizophrenic on race even more than now – fight fascism in Europe and Japan, but keep racism going at home. As one of the surviving Tuskegee Airmen has said, the black troops were fighting on three fronts – against Germany, Japan and segregation in the United States.

Conversations referring to home, the joy expressed when receiving mail, romance with local civilians, frustration about inferior equipment and menial assignments, longing for action – all the moments and behavior we have come to associate with war films are present but infused with the unique status of these volunteers. Most of the actors are fresh faces with just enough awkwardness in dialogue to convey the underlying fears of young airmen — being in a strange place hoping for a dangerous assignment which will translate into equality and fair treatment once they’re back home, if they survive.

Red Tails

Lucasfilm LTD. and TM. All Rights Reserved.

David Oyelowo as Joe Little walks into a white officers club in Italy and runs into trouble. This was a problem for black troops throughout Europe and the UK, since many white servicemen were given to violence against black men for any imagined social infraction. A horrifying scene in John Schlesinger’s 1979 film, “Yanks,” shows the brutality of white against black in social situations, as though they weren’t fighting on the same side.

A fighter plane has one pilot; a bomber carries a crew of 10. When the Red Tails finally receive a chance to escort American bombers to and from German air space, they acquit themselves extremely well and the all-white bomber crews are grateful. More than 60 Tuskegee Airmen died in action in that long-ago war. A few are alive today, frail in wheelchairs or walking with canes. With family and friends, they came out in force for the opening of “Red Tails.”

The action sequences – American fighters against German fighters – are amazing and fascinating, blending closeups of P-51 pilots and bomber crews with planes attacking, getting hit and crashing in flames. The carnage inside a bomber when it’s been hit reminds one of Randall Jarrell’s searing poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”

Early on, before jet planes were introduced, this one-on-one combat was competitive and recalled the air aces of the First World War. However, the loss of American bombers was significant when fighters chased each other through the skies. The Red Tails were asked to fly close escort, eschew dogfights, and bring the flying fortresses home after they dropped their bombs on German cities.

The commercial success of “Red Tails” may depend on communities, social clubs and church groups coming out in large numbers as they did for “Waiting to Exhale” in 1995, and Kevin Costner’s “The Body Guard” in 1992. In each case, Hollywood did not seem to know what to do with the film. Word of mouth has created a sizeable audience for many films in the past. Let’s hope it does for “Red Tails” as well.


Red Tails

Tristan Wilds as Ray "Ray Gun" Gannon with executive producer George Lucas.

J.P.’s Take:
Though I was ecstatic about George Lucas bringing “Red Tails” to the big screen, in some way the personally funded project by Lucas is kind of a let down.

After finally reviewing this version of the story of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, I’ve come to the realization that it will serve only as a straight forward action flick. Unfortunately, the film is somewhat devoid of historical value and instead tells the story cautiously. It’s careful not to travel back to the segregated south where Jim Crow Laws were in place, which would have served as the back story for each of the characters involved. To make matters worse the performances and script were awkward and seemed out of place in certain scenes.

Although I give great credit to the depiction of fierce dogfights and aerial acrobatics these brave men displayed in combat (when they did see some action), that alone is not enough to save this movie. Indeed they were  highly skilled pilots, yet were constantly ridiculed, scrutinized etc; never given credit for their bravery or skill. They, however, gained respect from their white counterparts over time and were requested for missions.

All in all there just wasn’t enough meat on the bones to flesh out the whole story, which is an element I feel would have had greater emotional impact on it’s audience; even those not familiar with  historical black figures such as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Red Tails

David Oyelowo as Joe "Lightning" Little. Lucasfilm LTD. and TM. All Rights Reserved.

I would recommend the 1995 film simply titled “The Tuskegee Airmen” starring Lawrence Fishburn and Cuba Gooding Jr., who also stars in this new 2012 film. This earlier version bares much more emotion, back story and history, with a climatic ending needed to do the first African-American U.S. Air Corpsmen justice.

Sorry to say I’m only giving “Red Tails” an “OK” for it’s attempt at catering to a wider audience and for the wonderfully choreographed air battles. In no way am I downing Lucas for his vision, I applaud him in his efforts to bring forth a film to showcase the Red Tails contributions. But I was hoping a story near and dear to his heart, would have shared with us more about them. The Tuskegee Airmen were honored in a tribute at the New York vs 49ers game November 13th in 2011. I would see this film in celebration of their service to America.

With that said I invite you to explore for yourself by visiting these sites below:





About Jeanne Powell and J.P. Langston


Jeanne Powell is a poet and short story writer, who teaches in a summer program for teens. Her most recent books are “My Own Silence” and “Word Dancing,” available online and through booksellers. She also hosts spoken word events in San Francisco, and covers cultural happenings for online media.