Red Tails (2012) sees US director George Lucas return to producing duty on a film that (remarkably) isn’t a sequel, prequel or 3D retrofit conversion of one of his much-cherished earlier works. Directed by Anthony Hemingway and starring Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Nate Parker and Terrence Howard, Red Tails is an expose of racism during the 1940s, told – for whatever reason – predominantly through the eyes of its white characters.
Inspired by the true story of the Second World War’s first all-African American fighter squadron, Red Tails follows the plight of these undeniably heroic young men who fought not just against the tyranny of the Nazi jackboot, but also the bigotry inherent in their homeland. Not considered worthy of a front line role in service of their country, Hemingway’s film shows these young men’s ascent from diligent reconnaissance aviators to highly-decorated fighter pilots.
Whilst set in the 1940s, Red Tails 80s-inflected script and modern CGI special effects culminate in a dated, overly-stylised depiction of warfare that ignores the true horrors of conflict we, as an audience, have grown to understand. Whilst the film’s high octane dogfights initially excite, the monotony of the laborious plot slowly dilutes their spectacle, leaving behind a strangely tedious and astoundingly underwhelming piece which lacks any real substance or punch.
For a feature attempting to highlight racial injustice, Red Tails does a mighty fine job of painting all its peripheral ethnicities with a very broad, stereotypical brush – especially the Germans, who are made to look far more malevolent and wooden than the entire company of Moon Nazis in Iron Sky (2012). Plastering over numerous cracks in history, the film takes an incredibly inward-looking perspective on discrimination, failing to show us the far more interesting battle for equality that went on behind the scenes in the Pentagon.
Despite tapping into a relatively untouched aspect of the Second World War (perhaps the most well-documented period of history in cinema), Hemingway’s film is further hindered by an inept, cluttered and incredibly incoherent script which finds itself lacking in any form of pathos or peril. Each death-defying mission undertaken by these belittled fighter pilots appears as a relatively risk-free – and thus drearily repetitive – collection of excursions into war-torn Europe, lacking any tangible sense of threat or danger.
Red Tails is clearly trying to be an action-packed version of The Help (2011) for men to enjoy – a masculine tale of racial empowerment with fighter planes and pipe-smoking instead of pie-baking and afternoon tea. However, Hemingway’s hideously misguided and surprisingly boring war film nosedives almost from the start, failing to highlight either the horrors of war or the hereby ignored degree of racism which occurred during the time – ultimately its USP.