The Mother Brain Files: Red Tails Movie Review

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The Mother Brain Files: Red Tails Movie Review
By Mother Brain

Before I dive right into my review, I want to quickly share my initial reaction after seeing the George Lucas-produced historical war drama Red Tails. I wrote a comment on Facebook about how refreshing it was to finally see some heroic African-American role models who can inspire the young people of our generation. There’s no surprise that some of my friends would respectfully counter my point when they reference today’s African-American movie stars like Will Smith and Denzel Washington who often play heroic characters of color. While they’ve had their own struggles in their careers, they’ve also grown to a level of super-stardom in which they can play larger than life characters. The difference between them and the young actors in Red Tails, however, has less to do with star status and more to do with depicting real life heroes who don’t always have the answers and are not afraid to show vulnerability.

As reported in the press recently, Red Tails took over 20 years for George Lucas to get produced into a feature film. Despite Lucas’ massive success with the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, no studio in Hollywood was willing to risk bankrolling on an all-black, action-adventure film; especially when it’s a period piece requiring lots of special effects.  As a result, Lucas covered the production and marketing costs himself and hired television director Anthony Hemingway of HBO’s The Wire to helm the project with a screenplay by former comedy writer John Ridley.

The story is set in 1944 near the end of World War II with the African-American pilots of the Tuskegee program are not only battling the Nazis in the air but also having to battle racial discrimination within the military. But even by having to deal with hand-me-down fighter planes, simplistic missions, and the threat of their program being shut down, the Tuskegee pilots ultimately prove their worth on the most dangerous missions ever given to any American fighter pilots period.

There were many aspects to the film that stood out to me. One of them was nice cinematic comebacks of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrance Howard. Gooding’s once promising career following an Oscar win for Jerry Maguire in 1996 was tarnished with humiliation following a string of box office flops in the comedy genre while Howard’s negative attitude on film sets had cost him major roles. The performances of Gooding as the tough Tuskegee base Major and Howard as the supporting Colonel tackling the military politics back at home reminded me of why they were so talented to begin with. They show growth as actors as well as a sense of pride and defiance in their respective scenes.

The film also had a plethora of up and coming black actors in the roles of the pilots themselves. Although everyone had their special moments, it had to be David Oyelowo (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Nate Parker (The Great Debaters) who were truly the heart and soul of the film. A lot of critics whose reviews I’ve read panned their individual subplots for being uninspired. But they completely miss the context of the characters’ relationship. As Lucas stated in a recent New York Times interview, Parker’s role as “Easy” was a metaphor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in that he “respects the army brass and plays by the rules”; Oyelowo’s role as “Lightning”, however, was a metaphor of Malcolm X in that he “bristles at authority and blows up German warships when he chooses.” But of the two stand-out performances, Oyelowo made the most impression to me. After having played a sinister corporate antagonist in last summer’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Oyelowo turned on the charm and winning personality that I’d say many in the audience identified with.


Finally, there was the amazing cinematography of John Aronson. As many people know, there was a good amount of sets and locations that were CGI with the actors working around a green screen setup which was the case in making the Star Wars prequels. But it never took me away from the story. I found myself mesmerized by the classical look of the Tuskegee base and the way in which the pilots are photographed beautifully just like the great photographic works of the late African-American photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks. The dogfights in the air were also a spectacular sight to see. One could understand what inspired Lucas’ spectacular space battles in the Star Wars films after seeing how skilled and courageous these pilots really were. The folks at Industrial Light & Magic carefully studied the remaining real war footage to get the details down to create some amazing aerial feats. You have to see it to believe it.


It’s hard for me to discuss the things that didn’t work in Red Tails. A lot of people complained about some of the cheesy dialogue and the lack of stand out performances due to director Hemingway’s lack of film experience. I’ll be bias in saying that none of these criticisms mattered to me whatsoever. Much of this bias had to do with the film reminding me of my grandfather who fought in the war and whose stories were shared with me by my dad. I don’t think the film necessarily holds a candle to the more realistic and stylish aerial combat sequences in Top Gun. But to me, the real experience of seeing Red Tails was to watch a story about young African-American boys who became men in the midst of combat. Men who were incredibly daring and courageous even in the face of fear and adversity. I believe it is truly an inspiring story for everyone no matter what your nationality is.

It is also a timely story that I hope will help young African-American men of our generation realize that true to life heroes don’t brag about their fame and fortune or get overpaid because of their talents in music, sports, or entertainment in general. Real heroes never get held down by adversity or fear. Red Tails gave me a reason to believe that there are heroes of color who still exist in the world.

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