Entertainment Movies

Monday 22 January 2018

War epic fails to fire

Paul Whitington

red tails

(12A, general release, 121 minutes )

Director: Anthony Hemingway Stars: Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo


Back in the 1940s, Adolf Hitler wasn't the only one pedaling race theories. During World War II, the odious Jim Crow segregation laws were still alive and kicking in many American states, and the US armed forces were also divided on racial lines. Generals and politicians felt free to sit around spouting off about the limitations of the 'negro' intellect, and backed up their beliefs with dubious scholarly research.

In 1925, an Army War College study asserted that blacks lacked the ambition, courage and mental capacity to serve in combat, and this ludicrous viewpoint persisted through World War II.

It was challenged by brave all-black combat groups like the Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of African-American P-51 Mustangs that served with distinction in Italy, France and Germany. They are the subject of this curiously old-fashioned war film directed by Anthony Hemingway and financed by George Lucas.

Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr play Colonel AJ Bullard and Major Emanuel Stance, two US Army Air Corps officers who have fought official scepticism to successfully establish the all-black 332d Fighter Group.

But having set up their unit, Bullard and Stance are frustrated when their squadron is sidelined miles behind the front lines of the Italian campaign because the generals still believe they can't be trusted in combat.

Star pilots like Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelewo) and squadron leader Marty 'Easy' Julian (Nate Parker) are forced to fly worn-out Warhawk fighter planes in strafing missions of enemy transport, but yearn for a chance to prove themselves in battle.

That chance comes when Colonel Bullard persuades his superiors to allow the 332d to provide cover for bombers during the Allied landing at Anzio.

The black pilots excel in dog fights with German ME109s, and are then asked to accompany B-17 Flying Fortresses on regular bombing missions into the heart of Germany. In the air they do fine, but on the ground they still face constant racism from white soldiers and fliers.

The story of the 332d Squadron is a good one, and has already inspired several other films.

Red Tails' producer Lucas has said he wanted to make a rousing, retro war film with black combatants as heroes, and in a sense he has succeeded.

If you'll forgive the expression, Lightning and Easy operate in a black and white world of absolute goods and bads. The Germans are portrayed as ludicrous, fist-shaking caricatures, and when one of them goes to shoot Lightning out of the sky he utters the magnificent phrase, "Die foolish African!"

Red Tails' awful, clunky dialogue is its principal problem, but there's a general stiffness and staginess to the whole exercise that undermines a strong storyline and some decent action sequences.

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