Though it didn’t carry a $200+ million budget or a brand name associated with a beloved franchise, Red Tails was still a notable film when it hit movie theaters in January 2012. After all, this was the first time Lucasfilm would be releasing a feature outside of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises since the 1994 motion picture Radioland Murders. With the benefit of hindsight, Red Tails has only grown more important, with various aspects of its production cementing it as a cinematic time capsule. Red Tails isn’t the most acclaimed movie 2012 offered, not even close, but it does help provide a bit of a roadmap for where Hollywood has gone in the last ten years.
For one thing, Red Tails ended up being an even more important movie for Lucasfilm than it originally seemed. Initially, this just seemed like a production that could signify a step forward for George Lucas’s studio, a way for the company to begin using all the riches produced by Star Wars and Indiana Jones to create new original works. It also brought Lucasfilm back to the days of the 1980s and 1990s, when the production company was involved in projects like Latino and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, unorthodox features that couldn’t have gotten made elsewhere.
It’s impossible to tell if Red Tails was meant as the start of a string of further original projects financed by George Lucas or just a quick deviation from focusing on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Still, the idea of Lucasfilm being able to produce projects like this was reassuring, especially since Lucas claimed he had to finance it himself after no major studio would bankroll Red Tails given that it had an all-Black cast. Subverting those sorts of norms in the film industry is just what an outfit like Lucasfilm should be doing with its wealth and influence.
However, just nine months after Red Tails hit movie theaters, Lucasfilm would be absorbed into Disney. Previous questions on whether or not Red Tails was a one-off for Lucasfilm were now tragically clear. What once looked like a hint of an exciting future was now an aberration, as the Mouse House was looking to use Lucasfilm as a destination for new installments in previously existing sagas. In a precursor to what would happen to 20th Century Fox and both divisions of DreamWorks SKG later on in the decade, the absorption of Lucasfilm meant a reduction in the amount and kinds of stories that Hollywood would tell.
It isn’t just in how it fits into the history of Lucasfilm that Red Tails serves as an intriguing time capsule though. There’s also the way it fits into the history of American war movies. Red Tails was coming off a massive spike in World War II dramas largely inspired by the critical and financial success of Saving Private Ryan in 1998. Throughout the 2000s, Pearl Harbor, Flags of Our Fathers, and Valkyrie would use this setting as the backdrop for war stories. Even at the start of the 2010s, the Marvel Cinematic Universe made use of World War II with Captain America: The First Avenger. This historical event was everywhere at your local movie theater.
A month before Red Tails dropped, War Horse became one of the first major American movies to chronicle the exploits of World War I in years. That war would turn out to be rampantly explored throughout 2010s cinema in projects ranging from Wonder Woman to They Shall Not Grow Old to 1917. World War II films didn’t suddenly vanish (Fury and Unbroken both hit theaters in the final three months of 2014), but they became far less common on the big screen, especially after 2015. Red Tails wasn’t exactly the very last hurrah for larger-budgeted World War II movies on the big screen, but in retrospect, it’s easy to see it being at the tail end of the big-screen fixation of this chapter of history.
The approach Red Tails takes to history is also in stark contrast to war movies of the last ten years, with the screenplay by Aaron McGruder and John Ridley making a heavy emphasis on big motivational speeches and grandiose moments of melodrama. It’s an outsized production not afraid to get schmaltzy. Whether that works or not will depend on the viewer, but it’s decidedly in sharp contrast to the kind of war movies that would dominate multiplexes afterward. Thanks to a shift in focus on the morally complex World War I, mainstream war films like 1917 became more conscious of the cost of life in these conflicts. Even a goofball blockbuster like The King’s Man depicted the death of teenagers in No Man’s Land with somberness rather than darting off to the next big motivational speech.
Red Tails fit right into the mainstream war movie aesthetic in 2012 that was defined by romanticism and sentimentality as seen by projects like Pearl Harbor and Australia. In the years since, though, this approach has grown out of fashion. Even films set during World War II, most notably Dunkirk, haven’t just deviated from this approach, they’ve run counter to it by emphasizing minimal dialogue. What was the norm for war films in 2012 has become an outlier in 2021.
And then there’s how Red Tails fits into the history of bigger-budgeted American films with primarily Black casts. Despite Red Tails doing decent box office numbers, it didn’t automatically inspire a wave of other broadly appealing action movies with largely Black casts to get greenlit. Of course, six years after this Anthony Hemingway directorial effort, Black Panther would emerge and change the Hollywood landscape forever in this regard. There’s still so much work to be done for the representation of Black people on-screen, not to mention the presence of Black artists behind the scenes, but Black Panther did serve as a wake-up call to the kind of projects Hollywood had long ignored.
Red Tails didn’t so much kick the door open for Black Panther, but it did try its hand years earlier to change pop culture perceptions of who could and couldn’t headline major American spectacle features. The challenges it faced in getting to the big screen, particularly the challenges that forced Lucas to bankroll the film himself, reflect the adversities titles like Red Tails and Black Panther were trying to counter simply by existing. Additionally, Red Tails, unlike many other prior features from Hollywood covering war experiences from Black viewpoints, was told by a Black filmmaker and didn’t have a single white protagonist in its cast.
The place it now has in the history of mainstream films from Black artists is just one of many ways Red Tails, has managed to etch its place in history. Of course, this doesn’t automatically turn it into a flawless masterpiece. In many respects, Red Tails can’t help but emerge as a corny war movie and many of its actors (namely David Oyelowo and Michael B. Jordan) would deliver much better work elsewhere shortly after this film’s release. Warts and all, though, Red Tails has stuck around through the last decade to emerge as a fascinating time capsule in countless ways.
The film premieres on February 17.