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 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.
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.
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.