‘Red Tails’ tackles segregation and war in this rousing pilot film
By Drew Powell
photo courtesy of Lucasfilm
¦ For all of its virtues, "Red Tails" airbrushes the horrors of war.

At its core, Anthony Hemingway’s “Red Tails” is a story of racial segregation and defying the odds.

Inspired by a true story, it centers on the all-black crew of fighter pilots who came out of the Tuskegee training program during World War II, which had one of the best records in the war. However, there has not been a movie like this done in such a playful and exhilarating way.

Here’s a movie about racial segregation that isn’t so by-the-numbers. Hemingway and his writers don’t shove the moral down our throats but, instead, do it in the style of a B-action movie. So, in the end, it becomes more about the black fighter pilots having to fight the common German enemy as opposed to always being at odds with the whites. Considering it’s executive-produced by George Lucas, that should come as no surprise.

With John B. Aronson’s airbrush-painted cinematography and Terence Blanchard’s rousing and patriotic soundtrack, “Red Tails” evokes a sense of nostalgia, homage to earlier war movies. In the same way Lucas drew from early matinee serials and pulp magazines for inspiration for the creation of “Indiana Jones,” the same could be said about this film’s style.

And by making it inspired by a true story, it gives Hemingway and his crew some room to exaggerate.

The film isn’t always successful; in fact, sometimes it can be a little too cartoonish (a maniacal one-dimensional Nazi pilot that’s given more screen time than needed, for example), but for the most part, this lively take on an inspiring story is entertaining and refreshing.

Focusing on characters

When we first meet the fighter pilots, they’re not at the training school getting yelled at by white officers but, instead, up in the air on a run, jiving and joking back and forth about how they don’t get any good missions and that they fly hand-me-down planes.

We get to see them in a positive light, all cocky and confident. Even though they’re the underdogs, they still hold their heads up.

As with many war movies, “Red Tails” has the difficult task of balancing all the different characters. It’s not entirely successful, but overall, it does a modest job of at least establishing a few main characters that we can latch on to. These include Nate Parker as Martin Julian, the squad leader; and David Oyelowo as Joe Little, who’s the most battle hungry of the squad, the one willing to go head first into a highly dangerous fight.

The script by John Ridley and Aaron MacGruder is at its best when it shows the camp life: the brotherly love between the pilots and the other crewmen (they have nicknames for each other like “Ace” and “Lightning”) and their quarrels and problems, like Julian’s drinking problem. The main issues the movie chooses to focus on aren’t just racial.

Not heavy-handed

Now, the picture doesn’t completely avoid the racial-segregation issue; Hemingway just isn’t heavy-handed about it. He doesn’t assume that the audience has no idea what it is and what it looks like. The fact that it’s an all-black crew (pilots, mechanics, doctors, etc.) is enough. He doesn’t flood the screen with one scene after another of white soldiers ridiculing the blacks; instead, the few confrontations between them are turned upside-down.

Such as a scene where Little is told to leave an all-whites bar. Instead of hanging his head in shame, he goes back and punches the officer, the same audacious thing someone like Indy Jones might do.

Or later on after a successful mission, when Little and Parker and a few others are confronted by the same white officers — not with hostility but with gratitude — and even offer to buy them a drink. The scene may be corny, but it’s amusing to watch their puzzled faces, unsure of whether to go in.

Hemingway and crew have mostly waived the opportunity to show the raw intensity of war. Instead of making war look like hell, they’ve made it look glorious. Making the planes and the battles CGI already creates some emotional disconnection.

There is a side plot between Little and an Italian girl that feels tacked on, but for dealing with such a heavy issue, Lucas and Hemingway have made a versatile movie that can appeal to a wider audience.