If George Lucas is to be believed (and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be), “Red Tails’’ is a movie no Hollywood studio wants us to see. Lucas complains to Bryan Curtis in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that an action movie about the storied Tuskegee Airmen - black pilots who flew and fought with distinction in World War II - just wasn’t important to executives. He held a screening and none came. So he says he wound up paying for the entire movie himself. This is depressing news for several reasons.
First, if George Lucas can’t persuade a film studio to humor him and take a look at a movie, then who can? Second, the Times story then lists the raves from the black luminaries who attended a private screening. One former Airman implored every African-American to see “Red Tails,’’ and Al Sharpton offered a qualified assessment when he exclaimed, “It’s probably one of the best movies I’ve ever seen!’’
All of which brings me to the other depressing thing about this film, which opens today, years after other people’s attempts to get an Airmen story told. It puts audiences, once again, in the annoying position of having to run out and support something that isn’t very good. So you root for “Red Tails,’’ which Anthony Hemingway directed, because it wants to do right by history and the stories of these men. You do not root for it because it does anything with those stories that’s new or powerful or deep or even reliably entertaining. The screenplay is credited to John Ridley and the cartoonist Aaron McGruder, and it plunks us down in Italy on the all-black air base of the 332d Fighter Group, where the men are a handsome, close-knit assortment of cardboard types, played by a likable young cast.
Nate Parker is the upright mission leader. David Oyelowo is the hothead and ladies’ man. Tristan Wilds is The Kid. And several other actors share the job of comic relief. Marcus T. Paulk might not even be going for comedy, but his sole quirk is a ratty picture of a Black Jesus that he constantly prays to by name, and it always gets a laugh. So does whatever cornpone accent the singer Ne-Yo is going for. They’re all on the ground just long enough for Oyelowo’s hothead, Joe “Lightning’’ Little, to take over the movie. He has a bar fight, falls in love with an Italian woman (Daniela Ruah), and bickers with Parker’s character, Marty “Easy’’ Julian. Easy wants Lightning to calm down and listen to his commands in the air. Lightning wants Marty to stop drinking while aviating. Some of these scenes are sweet. Many of them play like outtakes from Robert Townsend’s piquant movie-racism satire “Hollywood Shuffle.’’ (“The sky is blue,’’ Wilds’s character says, “and my guns are hot!’’)
The Airmen want to see combat but are routinely assigned so-called escort missions in which they chaperone white pilots and their bombers to their targets. Here that also means fending off attacks from German planes and taking out speeding trains and boats. These air scenes are conducted in the generic spirit of old Saturday matinees. That feels like a distinctly Lucas touch. But most of the flight scenes bog down the movie. If we get one shot of brown faces with black flight masks, we must get a thousand, and few of these actors is brilliant enough to act his way past that.
More important, the movie’s real drama is more political than military. It doesn’t want to get hung up on the second-class status put upon the Airmen but tasks its biggest stars - Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. - with demanding equality and instilling pride, all the same.
Howard, especially, seems burdened with responsibility. Whenever he speaks, it’s as if he might never get the chance again. He and Oyelowo evoke different aspects of the old Sidney Poitier dilemma, Howard in his intense dignity, Oyelowo in his attempt to turn his natural British accent American and loose. The sight of Howard denouncing racism in uniform while seated at the Pentagon carries a gust of uplift. But it would be dishonest to say that he’s better here than he was as a rapping pimp. For any actor, down and dirty is more fun than pressed and starched. But pressed-and-starched is all this movie can afford to be.
Spike Lee paid a similar tribute to black World War II soldiers with “Miracle at St. Anna.’’ But the movie was too defensive to entirely work. Incidentally, the Times article mentions that if “Red Tails’’ is a hit, maybe Lee can shoot a prequel, which means the movie is ultimately a hypothetical coming attraction. Either way, it’s nice to have it. There aren’t enough depictions of black heroism. But this story or the many others of the Tuskegee Airmen one could tell deserves a cable-television series or a truly great movie angle.
This treatment is pure to the point of being evasive. It has character but no characters. Understandably, the filmmakers didn’t want to make “Top Gunz,’’ although “Red Tails’’ has its moments. They’ve just gone too far in the other direction. The movie is so desperate to be palatable, to appeal to everybody that it doesn’t taste like anything.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.