Which is why I was so surprised to discover that “Red Tails,” a fictionalized movie about the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII, is as wholesome as a bowl of cornflakes on a Sunday morning. Sure, it’s a war movie, which means that there are serious injuries, one major death and related trauma, but there’s hardly anything onscreen that you wouldn’t have seen in a similar movie made in the 1950s.
It’s even educational. For those of us who promptly forgot everything we learned in history class, the Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name for the first group of African American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. They were trailblazers who faced overwhelming prejudice while dealing with the horrors of war, and their stories could probably serve as excellent fodder for at least a dozen movies.
The more wrenching, dark and powerful of those stories will have to wait for one of those later movies, however. “Red Tails” embraces both the good and bad of those 1950s movies, focusing on simple, uplifting stories rather than character nuance or dialogue that brings you to tears. Terrence Howard and Gerald McRaney are mostly there to look dignified (Howard also proves deft at inspirational speeches), while Cuba Gooding, Jr. has the unenviable task of trying to make up for the fact that the script forgot to give his character a real purpose of any kind.
The rest of the cast is mostly unfamiliar, and the addition of two musicians (Method Man and Ne-Yo) left me with the uncomfortable feeling that Hollywood used up most of its cache of young black actors in order to cast the film. Of the group, David Oyelowo shows the most range as the angry, romantic pilot Joe “Lightning” Little. He does everything he can to infuse every scene he’s in with emotional depth, and as a result he usually ends up being the most interesting thing on screen.
That is, until the movie hits the skies. The movie’s flying sequences and air battles are straight out of a young boy’s fantasies, and are genuinely thrilling even for those of us who didn’t think we had the slightest interest in air battles. “Wholesome” may be the best thing you can say about the movie on the ground, but when it gets into the sky then nothing can stop it.
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence