It was a question sparked by the first two ‘Star Wars’ sequels: how much of ‘Red Tails’ is the director’s vision, and how much is down to producer George Lucas? This is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – the segregated units of African-American pilots who served in the US Air Force in WWII – and has been a pet project of Lucas since the late ’80s. A string of young black filmmakers came and went until the job was finally handed to TV veteran Anthony Hemingway. But in almost every aspect – from the slick aerial dogfights to the stilted dialogue, from the cookie-cutter characterisation to the sense of cosy, old Hollywood nostalgia – this has Lucas’s fingerprints all over it.
Our heroes are Easy (Nate Parker) and Lightning (David Oyelowo), two members of the 332nd fighter group stationed in southern Italy. While Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) is off in Washington trying to persuade the brass to take his outfit seriously, the group is reduced to trivial tasks, rarely catching sight of the enemy. Can Bullard’s boys convince their superiors that the Tuskegee Airmen are up to the job?
Well, of course they can. Because this is the kind of movie where hard work pays off, where honesty triumphs over adversity, where clean-cut flying aces with Lando Calrissian-style pencil moustaches charm the pants off southern Italian peasants (known for their racial tolerance in the 1940s). The flying scenes are stunning – though the CGI feels a little heavy-handed – and the cast acquit themselves admirably given the mealiness of the dialogue. But there’s no sense of threat or danger: this is a film with its head stuck firmly in the clouds.