Despite stunning aerial scenes and good intentions, the George Lucas-produced “Red Tails” is grounded by clumsy dialogue, a meandering plot and the occasional jarring anachronism.
It’s an “inspired by” tale of the Tuskegee Airmen that wanders from wildly entertaining to schoolroom instructive to one-note flatness.
It’s not the fault of the cast. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard may be the best known, but the actors playing the fighter pilots are outstanding. Nate Parker as Captain Marty “Easy” Julian is a restrained trained pilot, while David Oyelowo plays the talented, difficult Joe “Lightning” Little.
In 1941, the black airmen trained at Tuskegee Institute broke the racial barrier. The pilots and ground crew were determined to contradict a 1925 Army War College study that concluded blacks were “mentally inferior to the white man.”
They proved their worth when the 332nd Fighter Group, with its red-tailed airplanes, was assigned to protect U.S. bomber groups attacking Germany. They brought the vast majority home safely.
In one of the finer scenes in “Red Tails,” a group of black pilots walking past the Officers Club in Italy are called back by a white officer. Reluctantly they turn around to face what they believe will be an attack.
Instead, the officer wants to thank them — he’s a bomber pilot and the Red Tails had brought him and his 10-man crew back alive. He invites them into the club, introduces them to the startled, hostile white airmen as their saviors, and all the pilots, black and white, end up drinking together.
There’s a discussion between white and black pilots of the different labels that African Americans have been given. As one white pilot says, “We call you colored.” A pilot shoots back, “We prefer Negro.”
The love story between Little and an Italian girl who he marries begs the question of what would happen to them after the war. Would he be able to take her home to America? Would he come back for her? The film answers the immediate question, but not the larger one.
“Red Tails” is hampered by the occasional use of anachronisms, like “man up,” which jars the audience out of 1944. And be advised that the n-word is used in one scene.
Lucas, appearing on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” said he wanted to make “an inspirational (movie) for teenage boys. I wanted to show that they had heroes, real American heroes, they’re patriots that helped make the country what it is today.”
In that, at least, he has succeeded. “Red Tails” will make you want to read the history of the Tuskegee Airmen.
2 1/2 stars
Starring: Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston
Directed by: Anthony Hemingway
Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
Running time: 2 hours