A Red Tails Review: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Truth

A Red Tails Review: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Truth


It’s been a minute since there was a major “Obligatory” Black film coming out of Hollywood. The Obligatory Black Film, or OBF for short, is the Black movie that comes out and pundits, press and cultural critics all claim: “We have to go see this movie because if it’s not successful Hollywood will NEVER give us another chance.”

Previous entries into the OBF Hall of Fame are Malcolm X, Basquiat and just about any black Romantic comedy until Tyler Perry successfully cornered the market.  Red Tails, the World War II-era action film based on the real life exploits of the first African American squadron of fighter pilots is the loudest and most overt entrant into the OBF club. The film was produced by the granddaddy of Star Wars himself, George Lucas, and a week ago he basically threatened Black folks during an interview on the Daily Show claiming that if Red Tails wasn’t successful Hollywood would shut the door on Black movies. Lately, minority news outlets are screaming the same ‘sky is falling’ mantra before the film even hit theatres.

Well let’s cut to the chase, I just got back from a midnight showing of Red Tails and my review of it will pretty much allow anyone to decide if this film belongs in the OBF Hall of Fame, or if it’s just another January leftover film. (Few – if any – spoilers below, so you can keep reading).

The Good

The single most impressive takeaway from Red Tails is David Oyelowo as the hotshot pilot nicknamed Lightening in the film. Most Americans will have no clue who this guy is, so let me give you some background. Oyelowo spent 3 years playing “Danny Hunter” on the incredibly exciting and ten-times-better-than-24-and-CSI-and-the-UNIT British show called Spooks. In the United States Spooks has been renamed MI-5 (the name for the British CIA, essentially) and runs on a few avante garde PBS stations across the country. David Oyelowo played a flawed but compelling character on MI-5 but in Red Tails he really gets to show just how much of the screen he can chew up, from fierce to passionate to humorous and all around rogue.  Hands down, he was the best part of the film. (And for the REAL MI-5 fans out there look for the cameo appearance of Adam Carter, David’s former commander on the show).

Every war movie, every action movie, heck every group of friend needs the Wildcard, the Hans Solo, the Starbuck to someone else’s Apollo. Joe “Lightening” Little was pitch perfect. He’ll be the one your kids are talking about when you leave the theatre.

The film also successfully managed to make World War II era dogfights look interesting. I am not a war film buff, in fact unless I know there are lasers, superheroes or car chases I usually don’t go to the movies. However, in Red Tails they do an excellent job in the action sequences, especially in the latter part of the film. When the Red Tails squad went into battle in the best planes in the U.S. Army Air Force at the time, but faced the German Luftwaffe which had already evolved from prop airplanes to jets, you could literally see how the entire strategy and the filming of the scenes had to change. Toss in a few scenes of totally plausible racial reconciliation between the pilots and White soldiers in Italy and the “Good” in this film ain’t half bad.

The Bad

Oooh, I feel a spell of hater-aide coming on fast.

There were a lot of things wrong with Red Tails and some were fixable while others were just downright inexcusable. While David Oyelowo’s Joe Little was fantastic, the rest of the cast are alumni from the National Overacting Negro Ensemble. I know war movies are supposed to have stock characters – the religious guy who dies, the kid (who usually dies), the wildcard (who sometimes dies), the overworked leader (who almost never dies) and the crusty commander who eventually loosens up and lets the heroes succeed – but, did they have to make it so obvious?

Terrence Howard didn’t act in this film – he just gave speeches, and flat ones at that. Cuba Gooding Jr. really had no purpose in the film, and his Patton-esque pipe smoking was distracting and pointless. The poor acting bled into other parts of the film as well, the opening fight sequences were nothing more than cartoons since you had little or no connection to the main characters.

More importantly the film lacked significant historical and cultural heft. I don’t know if Aaron MacGruder (creator of the Boondocks) was assuming the audience knew all about the Tuskegee Airmen when he wrote this screenplay, but the film certainly plays out that way. You really hear nothing about the struggles these men went through to become airmen, nor does the film at all contextualize their unique positions as pilots compared to 99% of other blacks in the war who served as maintenance men or short order cooks. For a film that could have said a great deal about overcoming institutional and social racism it really misses the mark. At the same time there isn’t much of a plot in the film, there is no big mission at the end, at least not one that makes much sense, so while you feel proud at the end of the movie (people applauded in my theatre) it’s not quite clear what they really accomplished.

Finally, I will say this about the big issue that certain people are complaining about. The only female character in the entire film is an Italian woman named Sophia that Lightening starts kicking it with. Unlike just about any other war film ever made NONE of the other characters have a sweetheart at home or a wife or kids etc. I’ve met a few Tuskegee Airmen, lots of them had a nice sista at home that they were writing to and hoping to come back home and marry, but apparently this wasn’t a part of the plan for Red Tails. Therefore the only love in the film is interracial, and forced at that.

I have written extensively about how interracial relationships between Black men and White women on screen only fall into a few categories, and this one hit about 3 of them on the head. Ultimately the relationship did nothing to advance the film, was poorly constructed and just made everyone in the theatre groan out loud.

The Ugly Truth

Conclusion: If you go spend $11.00 to see Red Tails you will not be angry, or feel cheated or robbed of two hours of your life. The movie is adequate popcorn fare, and if you’re looking for some forgettable shoot ‘em up action this is a nice way to spend an evening.

If you’re planning on using Red Tails as a first date movie to spark intelligent conversation at dinner afterwards, you will be sorely disappointed. The film will introduce nothing about the Tuskegee Airmen that you couldn’t have learned from a three year old Black History Month copy of Jet magazine at your local barbershop. As Obligatory Black Films go, it’s not so bad, but my guess is that it won’t have the weight or the re-watchability to move it into the hall of fame.

DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson


  1. Wow, Professor… you don’t get Red Tails at all. It’s not so much a dramatized re-enactment of history as it is an action film. It should be judged in that context.

    I think you’re correct, however, that those preoccupied with the culture wars will portray Red Tails as a watershed event by which folks earn their racial bona fides. That, to me, is unfortunate. Many of these same self-appointed, wannabe arbiters of ‘Black’ tastes and culture won’t invest or spend a dime on movies produced and/or directed by African-Americans, but they’ll flock like pigeons to see the Obligatory Black Film as you’ve defined. They’re motivated not by intellectual curiosity about the film’s subject or its value as an entertaining diversion, but to have their Black Passes validated.

    Which brings me back to your review. As an action film, it’s not important for Red Tails to have an intricate human plot or for its actors to resonate with audiences. It doesn’t need to be historically accurate. Action flicks succeed or fail on their ability to deliver loud noises and eye-grabbing visuals.

    Tell us whether Red Tails achieves that effect without giving away the plot and then you’ve written a review that’s relevant.

  2. ''Which brings me back to your review. As an action film, it's not important for Red Tails to have an intricate human plot or for its actors to resonate with audiences. It doesn't need to be historically accurate. Action flicks succeed or fail on their ability to deliver loud noises and eye-grabbing visuals.''

    By your logic the Transformer movies are good……. Because they sure as hell deliver on those very well.
    Even as an action film this apparently fails, and it doesn't matter if its an action film you need a story, or some sort of emotional resonance with the audience, whether comically or dramatically. Judging from the trailer, and many of the reviews it falls flat.

    Generic, overly-dramatic with sloppy acting piss-poor dialogue and dull atmosphere.

    • Judging by the Transformers' franchise take at the box office, I'd say it's been a resounding success. I didn't like the only Transformers movie I've seen, but who am I to argue what's good for whom when literally millions of other people have voted otherwise with their dollars? It's supposed to be a free country.

      I think our would-be critics' conceit causes them to forget there's no accounting for tastes. McDonald's didn't sell a billion hamburgers by accident.

  3. Lucas sentiment about making this film is truly noble, and I totally understand he's aiming for a more popcorn, 1950's comic booky film while at the same time honoring the Tuskegee Airmen . But however Red Tails attempt is sterile, and lifeless..not to mention overtly sappy. I mean I don't mine campy, unrealistic films.with snappy dialogue(I love pulp fiction) but this reminded me a lot of Michael bay's disastrous ''Pearl Harbor'' only this film is a less agonizing experience .

    Christ how many pretentious, self righteous speeches can Cuba Gooding Jr give here?

    If you want honor the Tuskegee airmen why not make a more serous, more realistic film
    Then a lifeless, action film. Or at the very least make this film more palatable.

    Man it seems like anything Lucas is involved in(Post -Star Wars) turns out extremely mediocre. I wonder if Lucas didn't have any hand in this film(he did do re-shoots after all, and supervised the script ) would this turn out a better film than we got here?

    I mean its not godawful, but its terribly mediocre and just doesn't do justice to source material. There is some enjoyability in this film in some of its performances, and some of the effects look decent but I suggest watching the HBO film with Laurence Fishbourne. called ''The Tuskegee Airmen''. I guarantee you its much worth anyone's time than this film.

    • Uh… Red Tails isn't intended to be a remake of The Tuskeegee Airmen. We've been there, done that. And in judging everything Lucas has been involved — post-Star Wars — with as, "… extremely mediocre", I'm afraid that you, just like Jason Johnson, don't get his filmmaking whatsoever.

  4. To be honest, I will add this regarding your comments on historical accuracy being relevant. I have had the honor to meet with and speak to several Tuskegee Airmen over the years as my college has a course dedicated to them and there is an active chapter in the Northeast Ohio area. These men tell some AMAZING stories. And action film should be at least as exciting as the stories of the men that lived it. Red Tails doesn't quite live up to reality, let alone Hollywood hype.

    • "An action film should be at least as exciting as the stories of the men that lived it."

      That's fair, but it's applicable only with a dramatization of real events, which Red Tails isn't. FWIW, Lucas invited several Tuskeegee Airmen's input into the production, even reading from their logs and personal letters.

      You later wrote:

      "… in Red Tails they do an excellent job in the action sequences, especially in the latter part of the film".

      Isn't this an example for what should be be the main consideration in judging whether an action film works?

  5. Uh… Red Tails isn't intended to be a remake of The Tuskeegee Airmen. We've been there, done that. And in judging everything Lucas has been involved — post-Star Wars — with as, "… extremely mediocre", I'm afraid that you, just like Jason Johnson, don't get his filmmaking whatsoever.

    I never really said it was genius, but it does share similar motives and that's more or less take inspiration from lives of the Tuskegee airmen and so happens that one happens to do it better than the other.
    What's there to ''get'' about Lucas's filmmaking? , Lucas is barely a filmmaker these days…he's a businessman.

  6. Though I will take back the whole anything Lucas has been post star-wars has been mediocre simply for the fact he hasn't even really been involved in anything other than marketing(milking) Star Wars….. well aside from his involvement with that mediocre Indiana Jones film .

  7. I agree with the Dr. The movie did not live up to its hype or my expectations. The trailer and its music was a much better cut than the actual scene in the film. It was less than TV-movie fare and had a direct-to-dvd quality. The story was weak and the action not engaging.

    Its a shame that the Tuskeegee Airmen get this level of treatment compared to films like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.

    From a soldier that is still serving his country after 20 years.

  8. For those who love planes, men in uniform and the stories of grandfathers, dads, uncles and other men of a certain generation who have talked about what military service was like over the past 60 years, Redtails was simply a salute to their service. I saw men at the movie this afternoon who fought in wars from WWII to Korea, to the Gulf I to Iraq and Afghanistan. There were young children and teenagers. We applauded at the end of the movie. I saw the symbolism and I also saw enough to make me wish I had captured more truth from the men who served because I don't expect truth from a movie review.

  9. My grandpa was a WWII veteran. A decorated soldier who fought in Operation Overlord. Red tails need not speak of his experience, nor the experiences of other servicemen in other branches. Red tails was about those men who flew the planes and crews who supported them. Those who know history are aware of our ancestors who died in the bowels of ships as cooks, mechanics and servants to senior officers. If they don't, then shame on them. Red tails, while not perfect, was entertaining and well worth the price of admission.

    The real question that should be asked is why didn't Hollywood give Lucas the financial support it would have taken for the movie to include A list talent. Lucas did what Lucas always does…makes great movies laden with special brilliant special effects. No actor from the Star Wars saga was ever nominated for an acting award.

    Remember…this was a movie…meant to entertain…documentaries are for educating and there are several documentaries on the Tuskegee Airmen. Quite frankly…I would like to see someone pitch HBO on a mini series on the subject.

  10. An observation: About 5 years ago, a film called "The Great Raid" was made. It was accurate, inspiring and depicted Filipinos in a highly favorable light. It was a commercial flop. Just goes to show that everything depends on the flavor of the month so that the liberal mind can have its ration of self gratification without actually doing anything constructive.

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