There have been many underappreciated films throughout the years. Generally, these are just due to not being able to market them to their potential and no one goes to see them. Occasionally, the reasons are much more insidious.
Red Tails went into development way back in 1988, and the original intended release date was two decades ago. You'd think that when the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones says he wants to make a movie that movie studios would listen, right? Realize, this was before all the crap that has rained down on Lucas' head since the re-release of Star Wars as the Special Edition. However, no one would touch Red Tails. Not a single studio. Why? It was a story about black men with a primary cast made up entirely of black men. Hollywood wouldn't touch it.
They say there are financial reasons.
This may be true. In fact, it probably is true, because Hollywood is all about the money, but it doesn't make it okay. In the end, Lucas financed the movie himself. Marketed the movie himself. He only didn't distribute because Fox, grudgingly, finally agreed to do it. IF Lucas paid the distribution costs, so he paid for that, too. All totaled? Nearly $100 million. But Lucas believed in the worthiness of the movie and was willing to pay the costs even though he knew, he knew, the movie would take a loss. Probably a large loss. I can't help but admire that.
When it came time for Lucas to screen the movie to studio execs, he was snubbed. People literally just didn't show up to the screening. This was in 2011, so a lot of that had to do with the full-on hate that Hollywood and most of the world has going for Lucas, right now, but you can't deny that there is some part of it that's due to the fact that Lucas made a movie about blacks that's full of blacks. An action movie, not a drama. Something that hasn't ever been done before. We'll see if it happens again. As Lucas said in an interview, that's just not right. It's their job to show up for the screening, and these guys, a lot of them, chose to not do their jobs. It was calculated and insulting.
And completely undeserved.
Red Tails is getting bad reviews pretty universally. Before I went to see it, I did, actually, read some reviews, something I almost never do anymore. But, honestly, I was scared it wouldn't be good, so I wanted some information. My favorite (by far) review, started something like this, "George Lucas, destroyer of childhood dreams, has a new movie..." This was a professional reviewer, mind you, someone whose job it is to approach movies as objectively as possible and evaluate them for their individual merit. Maybe that was as objective as the reviewer should be, but, if that was the case, he shouldn't have been reviewing the movie. I'll leave it to your imagination as to what he went on to say about Red Tails, because it's probably worse than anything you'll imagine.
I finally got a chance to go see Red Tails the other night (I really wanted to go see it at Skywalker Ranch, but, despite the fact that they had several screenings of it, they filled up so quickly (with stars and "important" people) that the regular employees at Lucasfilm were never extended an invitation). I won't lie and say that I wasn't apprehensive. I didn't see a single good review for it. I didn't want it to be bad but was scared it would be. My fear was misplaced, Red Tails was spectacular.
Saying it like that, I could just be saying that the visuals were spectacular, and, believe me, they were. Extraordinary. It felt like watching aerial footage from WWII. But in color. Seeing that Lucas immersed himself in WWII dogfight footage when he made A New Hope, this is not surprising. This was not new territory for Lucas. But the rest of the movie is good, too.
I'm not saying it's the best movie ever, but it's solid. And it is certainly better than There Will Be Blood. By a lot. Yet, Blood was a best picture contender? And Red Tails is snubbed. Not just by critics but by everyone that currently has a beef against Lucas for "destroying their childhood dreams." At least, Red Tails is about something! An important something, I think. The movie, of course, is based on the Tuskegee airmen. I don't think there is anyway to stress how important the whole Tuskegee thing is to African Americans. Prior to that, the US military, based on "professional" psychological and medical testing had stated that blacks were both not intelligent enough or physically capable enough to ever be able to fly an aircraft.
The biggest issue with the movie is that Lucas started in the middle. The original treatment was too long for one movie, so Lucas had it expanded into a trilogy. Looking at the story, he felt that part 1 and part 3 were not movies he could make. More drama, less action. At least, he knows his strengths, I guess. The issue is that there really isn't a lot of background information given beyond a quote at the beginning of the movie. It picks up with primary characters, Easy and Lightning, in Italy at the Negro airbase there. If you don't know your history, especially your race history, I could see this being rather confusing. I don't know if it's because I grew up in the south or if it's just that they don't cover this stuff in schools anywhere anymore, but we've had to have many conversations with our children about racism and the history related to it, because they haven't covered it in school. At any rate, a lot of the subtext behind what's going on is left to viewer knowledge. And, honestly, at this point, while we're still dealing with race issues and other hate issues in the US and the world, it should be common knowledge. Too bad it isn't.
The other weakness with the movie is something I don't know if it's a weakness or not. When Ang Lee made his version of the Hulk 10 years ago, there was much derision of Eric Bana's lack of acting ability. I didn't find it to be bad acting. I'm pretty sure the "woodeness" of Banner in Ang Lee's Hulk was a directing decision to show how emotionless Banner kept himself. How in control he had to always be. I've seen Bana in other movies, and his role in Hulk is the only time I've seen him so... flat, so I think it was a concious decision. Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard are the "star power" in Red Tails, and both of them are very deliberate, slow speakers in the movie. It's difficult to tell if this was purposeful or not. Both of them felt very flat to me, but it may be that this was an appropriate way to speak for black men in their positions that had to deal with white men. So... maybe, it was actually great acting, but, without knowing, it came off as bad acting on the parts of the two "names" in the movie.
However, they are both supporting characters, and the leads don't suffer from this issue. Both Easy and Lightning are strong characters and easy to like and engage with. The movie, really, focuses on the relationship between the two men with the war and race issues supporting what's going on. I didn't find any issues with the dialogue, which has been the major criticism of the movie. I think, with the assumption that Lucas was responsible for it. But he didn't write the script or do any of the writing.
To be clear, this is a movie that deserves to be seen. It's good. Good enough that I sat with my hands balled into fists almost throughout the entire movie with the tension of the action. That's not normal for me. But from the opening, and it opens with a combat sequence, I cared about the characters, and I didn't want anything bad to happen to them. No, it's not a "deep" film, but it's not meant to be. It's an action movie. Maybe that's the issue for a lot of people. So far, any movies that have dealt with race issues have all been dramas. All been "deep." As with writing, it keeps "black" movies a sub-genre. Black movies go in their special section just like books by black authors go in their special sections. It's just like sitting on the bus. Or drinking from the water fountain. Racism doesn't end while there are still distinctions, financial or not.