Red Tails: Entertainment, Yes. Storytelling, No
I suppose if you hold your nose, Red Tails might be considered a decent movie in a it-could-have-been-a-lot-worse sort of way. And I understand enough of how the entertainment business works to accept a certain artistic license so I wouldn't raise much of an issue about the pilots flying D-model P-51s instead of the C-models they actually flew. It doesn't really matter in the telling of the story anyway, but Red Tails' fatal flaw is that it doesn't actually tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
It's really just a World War II fighter combat movie with an all-black cast and a veneer of racial tension when what I was futilely hoping for was a grittier story that illuminated the struggle these exceptional men went through to serve their country. Through dialog and plot devices, the uneducated viewer will get a vague sense of this but I think the word "Tuskegee" is uttered all of three times in the script.
But pilots are educated about the Tuskegee backstory, and I suspect if we're willing to forgive the film's technical errors and license with even the top-level bullet points of the story, we're probably not willing to be so generous with a script that just doesn't address a central part of the story: The Tuskegee program itself and what it represented. And speaking of the script, it manages a more or less steady trickle of truly horrid dialog, culminating in what will become, for me, one of the most ridiculous lines in all of film. When placing his pipper on a hurtling P-51, the German pilot of an Me-262 says, in subtitles no less, "Die, you African fool!" (I'm not making this up.)
In explaining his motivation for producing Red Tails in this interview, George Lucas says he shot it in the tradition of Flying Leathernecks and other World War II classics and intended it to read that way to the viewer. But this isn't 1942, and I think the device will be lost on most audiences. It was lost on me and I even heard him describe his intent. Lucas also contends that the only way to interest studios in marketing Red Tails was to sex it up with a bunch of — make that too much — stuff blowing up, burning and being shredded by machine guns. Even someone with the imagination of a turnip would see an unmistakable resemblance to Lucas' Red Tails' dogfight scenes and the X-wing fighters in Star Wars. The film could do with a lot less of that and a lot more character development that would inform audiences of what Tuskegee really was and what it means yet today.
Lucas and others have said the real point of Red Tails was to serve as an inspirational message for black teenagers, to show what can be achieved with determination, discipline and self-respect. Red Tails might do that, but I have a hard time believing it. I think audiences are sophisticated enough to parse storytelling not punctuated by stuff blowing up every 15 minutes. I know it can be done, because Men of Honor, about black Navy diver Carl Brashear succeeded brilliantly in doing this, all without relying on a CGI budget equivalent to the GDP of Honduras. Cuba Gooding Jr. was in that film too, perfectly cast as Carl Brashear. In Red Tails, not so much. His agent should forbid him to ever again accept a role in which he smokes a pipe.
So if you haven't seen Red Tails, should you? By all means. Lucas swears if the film succeeds, he'll shoot the prequel and the sequel which actually do tell the story of the Tuskegee Airman. What he's done so far doesn't quite get there. Here's to hoping the next film does.
A Thursday addition: Be sure to see the traveling exhibition called Rise Above produced by www.redtail.org. It will be at Sun 'n Fun and other venues this year. It has its own film and photos describing the Tuskegee program.
For readers interested, HBO's 1995 Tuskegee Airmen is relatively well represented in snippets on YouTube. Here's one that illuminates the barriers black pilots faced in 1942.
Click here to see an episode of Dogfights featuring engagements by the Tuskegee Airmen.