Lucas challenges Hollywood with ‘Red Tails’
Red Tails, written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder and directed by Anthony Hemingway, is based on the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary African-American pilots of World War II. The film was first developed over two decades ago by George Lucas, but faced many challenges because studios believed a movie with an all-black cast couldn’t be profitable. It’s quite fitting that a film about these heroes, who overcame prejudice and adversity, can serve as an example to Hollywood that it’s possible to make a successful film with an African-American cast.
Red Tails tells the story of a few of the heroic airmen. There’s Easy (Nate Parker), the straight-shooting leader who hides a drinking problem, Smokey (Ne-Yo), who’s always quick with a funny remark, Joker (Elijah Kelley), Deke (Marcus T. Paulk), the religious one, Junior (Tristan Wilds), the young gun and Lightning (David Oyelowo), the cocky one who never does anything by the book. They serve under Major Emmanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) in a segregated all-black squad. As the U.S. starts to loose bombers at a rapid pace, they are forced to give these pilots a try, believing them to be mentally and physically inferior because of their race. Beginning with their first mission, they prove to be some of the best flyers the military has ever seen and end up helping the war effort and becoming American heroes.
Lucas has said that he wanted this film to feel like something made in the 1940s and unearthed today. He succeeds in this regard. All visual effects and sweeping aerial shots aside, Red Tails does have a vintage vibe in terms of storyline and characters. Most will probably criticize the corny, one-dimensional nature of our heroes, but if we look back to old war movies, they didn’t contain complex, three-dimensional characters with rich backstories and motivations. The main characters were servicemen who fought for their country and became heroes, and that’s all we really needed to know about them. Here, we get a glimpse into each pilot’s life, but the main story takes place in the air.
All the airmen have their own unique qualities. Ne-Yo stands out with the voice and swagger he creates for Smokey. Oyelowo, shines as Lightning because he gives us Top-Gun-level cockiness while still being likable. Andre Royo and Method Man bring comic relief as mechanics Coffee and Sticks. Both Gooding and Howard pull their weight and show us that the Tuskegee Airmen were fighting more than just Nazis, they were fighting a culture of bigotry and racism.
One of the most fascinating elements about the film isn’t what takes place on the screen, but everything that had to take place before the cameras even started rolling. Lucas has said that he financed the film himself because of resistance from major studios who believed a film with an all-black cast wouldn’t be profitable overseas, where most films make the majority of their money. It’s very true that Hollywood places “black movies” on a different level than “mainstream” movies. Typically, these films have very low budgets and limited distribution. Lucas set out to change that and prove that a film with an almost entirely African-American cast can be mainstream. It’s very fitting that the tale he chose to break this barrier also happened to be about a skilled group of African-Americans who were told they were inferior by the mainstream military.