George Lucas’s Red Tails is something like the plastic Buck Rogers ray gun that one of the film’s characters, a World War II fighter pilot, carries as a good-luck charm. It’s juvenile, cannot perform its supposed function (whether vaporizing aliens or illuminating the lives of historic figures) and replicates something that does not exist. As much an ontological conundrum as it is a popular entertainment, Red Tails is a facsimile of the rousing, simple-minded movie that Warner Brothers did not make in 1944 about the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Lucas clearly believes that the omission of such a movie from the slates of Warner Brothers and all other studios was an injustice, explicable only by racism, and of course he’s right. Bad enough that the first African-American combat unit permitted in the Air Force, grudgingly assigned the oldest and crankiest planes and the least consequential missions, had to struggle for the opportunity to die for their country. Worse still that after they had proved their worth, the Tuskegee Airmen were denied the only general recognition that American culture then afforded: a movie of their own. But what an odd way for Lucas to right the wrong, by imitating the phantom postwar object down to the corn and clunkers! Brat-a-tat go the guns, as the old-school editing scheme takes you from a wide, airborne establishing shot to a tight close-up of a pilot declaiming, “Germans! Let’s get ‘em!”
I would dismiss this stuff as just more of Lucas’s schlock antiquarianism were it not for the final trait that Red Tails shares with the plastic ray gun. Both artifacts, though fakes, testify to the way people use pop culture to manage real fears.
The fears confronted in the movie are compelling enough, however notional the characters who feel them. The film’s airmen face the recurring but intermittent threat of death meted out by German forces, coupled with the pervasive and possibly permanent threat of dishonor imposed by white American society. To ward off panic and despair, each character has a method of coping that is as readily identifiable as his nickname and its accompanying cartoon logo, which is helpfully painted onto the fuselage of his plane. The owner of the plastic ray gun is Junior (Tristan Wilds), the youngest and most eager of the pilots. Deke (Marcus T. Paulk) addresses his hopes to a prayer card of Black Jesus; Smokey (Ne-Yo), the squadron’s requisite mush-mouthed Southerner, plays that old-time music on a banged-up guitar. Easy (Nate Parker), the smooth-talking flight leader, self-medicates with whiskey, while Lightning (David Oyelowo), the hotshot of the group, keeps himself going on adrenaline, which he variously generates by taking crazy risks against the Germans, using his fists against whites who insult him and pursuing a stammering, not-quite-bilingual courtship of a signorina (Daniela Ruah) in the town near the air base.
Only in the interplay between Lightning and Easy, the film’s major characters, do the bare storytelling conventions of Red Tails coalesce into a semblance of dramatic conflict. Easy—more the leading-man type of the two, with his long, square-jawed face, wavy hair and Clark Gable mustache—is a product of the black bourgeoisie, burdened with the expectations of an overbearing father and duty-bound at all times to follow orders and respect hierarchy. On missions, he is far too cautious for the liking of round-faced, cropped-haired, fireplug-chested Lightning, a young man from a more scuffling background, whose rage against the white-supremacist Army eventually carries over into rage against the accommodating Easy. Stop undermining yourself, Easy tells Lightning. Stop being a walking Atlanta Compromise, Lightning shoots back.