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If you see “Red Tails” some time this week, before it begins you’ll likely see a trailer for “Act Of Valor”, a film that trumpets the inclusion of “active-duty Navy SEALS” in its cast. It’s a fairly typical Hollywood action-film preview, with yelling (GO, GO, GO!!!) and explosions and apparent life-or-death situations that may or not be resolved with lots of shooting and, presumably, at least one act of valor. At one point, a cleverly-positioned soldier keeps a recently dispatched enemy’s body from toppling into some water, apparently to avoid a loud splash that could cause alarm among nearby bad guys. These are professional killers, trained to protect the United States of America from the nefarious doings of those who don’t appreciate the sanctity of our rich history of freedom and equality for all. On the big screen. With lots of yelling and explosions.
“Red Tails” itself has had a few such trailers. With a thumping dub-step soundtrack, planes performing harrowing maneuvers, and requisite nasty enemies (Nazis, in this case), the trailers for “Red Tails” have clearly been geared to pump up visceral excitement in likely largely young and male audiences.
This is the way to sell an action movie in Hollywood these days. Ratchet up the speed, volume, and explosiveness, add some jingoism, and wait for the receipts to tally up. It doesn’t always work out for a production that simply, of course, but the formula is rarely deviated from. If there’s bombast in your film, you’re wise to play it up in your previews, as it is bombast that puts butts in seats, most of the time. A difficult history lesson…most folks do not head to the theater in droves for that.
So for those of you wondering just what mix of kaboom and guilt George Lucas has in store for you in his latest endeavor as Producer, be assured that there’s enough sensory kerfuffle to dazzle those who like to be distracted when they sit down in the theater. If your attitude about movies is that life is stressful and complicated enough, and you go to the theater to forget, not to learn, “Red Tails” don’t mean to cause no trouble, sir.
However, if you suppose yourself the sort that can handle a fairly light, yet direct and unflinching dose of mid 20th-century racism, segregation, and discrimination of “negroes” (as the soldiers in the film assert is the proper term of the time) along with your razzle dazzle, Lucas and Anthony Hemingway (director), along with screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (adapting from the book by John B. Holway) have just the tap-dance for you.
“Red Tails” tells the story (“inspired by”, though, a disclaimer states at the film’s beginning) of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all dark-skinned unit of fighter pilots during World War 2. Back then, you may or may not know, things were “different” (read: mostly shitty for black folks) and these men were treated as though they were incapable of competent military behavior, due to their supposed lower intelligence and lack of courage. Appalling as that sounds, tough as a subject as it is to tackle, Lucas and the gang actually manage to dole out the difficult realities involved in doses that probably won’t (indeed, the doses seem measured with painstaking precision) alienate those who are easily alarmed and defensive in the face of an aspect of this great country’s less than great reality.
There may even be some who would suggest that “Red Tails” doesn’t put quite enough of a fine point on the complicated nature of what it was to be a young American black man in 1944. But, you know, screw those people. You came to the movies to see some Nazis get blown into pieces, and there is, I can assure you, plenty of that.
With a sparkling ensemble cast that includes Terrence Howard as the unflinching Colonel in charge of the squadron, Cuba Gooding Jr. as his Major, and stand-out Ne-Yo in the requisite singer-as-regular-guy-who-sings-like-a-famous-singer part (a staple in WW2 films in the past), “Red Tails” flies right along the border of two kinds of explosive. If you want to make a success out of an action film in this day and age, it helps if you don’t hit your audience over the head with too much message stuff. So go to the theater this weekend and watch some great Americans perform an act of valor. No one needs to argue about the details of the adversity that made these men special. “Red Tails” succeeds in showing that quite clearly, in one way or another.
Directed by: Anthony Hemingway
Release Date: January 20, 2012
Run Time: 120 Minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox