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Red Tails is the Star Wars prequel that fans deserved

The 20th Century Fox fanfare. The Lucasfilm logo. The onscreen text catching the audience up on the action, before the screen explodes into a dogfight featuring foolish heroics and flying machines exploding in dramatic fashion. Is it an alternate cut of Star Wars? No, it’s director Anthony Hemingway’s 2012 WWII actioner Red Tails, produced by Star Wars creator George Lucas.

Red Tails was a 20-year passion project for the mogul/filmmaker. As with all things Lucas, he originally intended Red Tails to be a trilogy, with the first film focusing on the racism the Tuskegee Airmen experienced at home, the second on their wartime experiences, and the third about their return to the U.S. But by the time pre-production began, it was decided, much as Lucas did with the Star Wars saga, that the focus would be on the middle segment of the story. “The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is a big story and it’s an amazing story,” Lucas said in an interview included on the Red Tails Blu-Ray. “Just like Star Wars, it’s a big action picture.”

Plenty of surface elements in Red Tails can be seen as callbacks to Star Wars. There are three distinct environments: the cool blue skies where much of the action takes place, the warmth and architecture of an Italian village, and the bleak, snowy landscape of a German prison camp. There’s a U.S. officers’ club that resembles Mos Eisley Cantina, as well as a faith in a mystical force that surrounds us all, controlling our actions and obeying our commands, here taking the form of the oft-mentioned “Black Jesus.” But unlike the prequel trilogy that began with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, Red Tails crafts a thrilling but simple tale driven by terrific, memorable characters and special effects that propel the story rather than draw attention to themselves. The film can be seen as another time when George Lucas realized that a more collaborative environment is sometimes necessary to bring a creative piece to fruition.

Lucas personally courted Aaron McGruder—Boondocks creator, self-confessed Star Wars guy, and son of a military man—to bring some punch to Red Tails’ script. “The movie [Lucas] had in mind was a very serious historical drama,” McGruder told Moviefone in 2012, “and I had always envisioned it more like Star Wars, particularly the old Star Wars, the first one.” Lucas is an amazing idea man and producer, but he is at his best when he’s working with outside writers: Lawrence Kasdan is credited with bringing gravitas to The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, and Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz did an uncredited comedy polish on the 1977 original script. The prequel trilogy lost some of that Saturday-afternoon feel in an attempt to educate children about tariffs and trade routes. Even with its PG-13 rating, Red Tails could probably be enjoyed more by most older kids than The Phantom Menace.

“The struggle for African-Americans to fight during World War II is part of the story. You can’t tell the story without it,” insisted Lucas on one of the Blu-Ray special features. That’s not the main thrust of the film, however. Red Tails is meant to be a high-flying adventure tale, akin to the John Wayne war movies of the ’50s. Its characters are living an adventure: The flight squadron featured in the film is initially stuck on flight detail with no real action, as the top brass back home doesn’t trust black pilots. They were seen as “mentally inferior, by nature subservient and cowards in the face of danger” and “therefore unfit for combat,” according to the 1925 U.S. Army War College Study, the text that opens the film. Terrence Howard’s Colonel Bullard fights Bryan Cranston’s Colonel Mortamus around every corner, and eventually wins out, giving the Tuskegee Airmen a chance to become respected fighter pilots.

McGruder and Lucas worked together closely on re-shoots for the film, as Hemingway was busy on other projects. Lucas’ strong suit was always in the action sequences; he famously spliced scenes of aerial dogfights into a rough cut of Star Wars to inspire his special effects team, and the trench run is arguably the most recognizable and memorable battle in all of Star Wars. McGruder clearly channels Star Wars in some of the Red Tails’ dialogue between the pilots—the squadron’s call signs are Red One and Red Two, for example—and Lucas’ presence is felt in the dogfight sequences.

In discussions on why the prequels aren’t so well-regarded—and there are plenty—the use of computer-generated effects is usually taken to task. Red Tails also uses an astounding amount of green-screen technology to recreate World War II dogfights, but much more effectively. The brisk combat scenes offer plenty of movement and interaction between the characters to keep the audience engaged. (A half-hour podrace, this isn’t.) The dogfight sequences are clean and never too busy, which helps the audience get a sense of space. The effects crew studied the nuances and details of flight. As a result, the aerial combat scenes carry more weight than something like the opening of Revenge Of The Sith, which resembles a video game more than actual combat. Red Tails utilizes and builds on the technology that was created for the Star Wars prequel trilogy by ILM, but in this case, the special effects help to propel the story, not distract the audience from the lack of one.

Red Tails represents how the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker should have been told in the prequels. The first time the audience meets the fighter pilots of the film, their nicknames and brief dialogue paint with broad stokes who they are as characters: Easy is the stoic leader, Lightning the hot-shot ladies man, Joker the flamboyant wiseass, Junior the kid who just wants to be Buck Rogers. The characters are certainly archetypes that audiences have seen in countless war movies, but that’s the kind of movie Red Tails is aiming to be. Fortunately, the actors’ performances bring enough wit and charm that the audience falls for them quickly.

“There are elements of American Graffiti in terms of the camaraderie of the guys,” co-star David Oyelowo told The Urban Daily. The American Graffiti influence can also be felt in the presence of up and coming actors such as Michael B. Jordan, Oyelowo, and more than a few cast members plucked from The Wire. The scenes of the fighter squadron hanging out around the base perhaps best represent what was missing from the Star Wars prequel trilogy: The dialogue is fast, quippy, and occasionally hammy, full of bold statements ripped right out of the pages of EC war comic Two-Fisted Tales. The best Star Wars dialogue was never the technobabble—about which Harrison Ford famously said “you can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it”—but the screwball exchanges between the heroes that help develop the characters, even if at times they resemble caricatures. That’s essentially what Lucas did with the original Star Wars—Han Solo is the cowboy, Luke Skywalker is on a hero’s journey, Obi-Wan is the wizard, and Leia is the princessand that’s what writers John Ridley and McGruder attempted to do here.

Easy, portrayed by Nate Parker, is a flawed character who tries to take Lightning (Oyelowo), a great pilot but a bit of a loose cannon, under his wing. He coaches the flyboy on following protocol and not going for the glory, but Lightning has a hard time listening to Easy’s critiques, as Easy has a drinking problem that could affect his performance in the air. If Easy is Obi-Wan Kenobi, then Lightning is the Anakin Skywalker. Their friendship feels real, if imperfect; while things are uneasy between the two of them, they are still friends, bonded in the barracks by a sense of duty. This is how the Jedi knights of the Old Republic should have been portrayed on screen. When Obi-Wan speaks of Anakin being a good friend in the original trilogy, the audience gets a sense of longing, as if Obi-Wan, much like Easy, attempted to mentor Anakin in the ways of the Force, but fell short because of his own personal flaws. Attack Of The Clones never does a stellar job of painting Anakin and Obi-Wan as comrades; in fact, they come off as not liking each other very much, without an ounce of the camaraderie displayed in Red Tails.

Upon its release, in the dumping ground of January, Red Tails was generally panned by critics. The characters were called “cardboard,” the dialogue “stilted and corny.” It was also criticized by for the “odd Saturday afternoon serial approach to the project” that used “cookie cutter” characterization and cringeworthy line deliveries—all critiques that resemble John Simon’s 1977 review of the original Star Wars. “[Red Tails] doesn’t have to be Saving Private Ryan, McGruder said. “We can be Star Wars, as crazy as that is. While the film is inspired by true events, Red Tails was never meant to be any more historically accurate than The Flying Leathernecks.”

Upon the film’s release, Jerry L. Barrow of The Urban Daily asked the filmmakers and cast, “Is Red Tails the black Star Wars?” (James Earl Jones, Darth Vader himself, reportedly told Cuba Gooding Jr. after a screening, “It’s Star Wars for black people.”) Calling Red Tails “the black Star Wars” doesn’t trivialize the true events that inspired the film; judging by the on-set interviews and press junkets, the almost all-black cast and crew were excited to be working with the man who created the galaxy far, far away. Terrence Howard had perhaps the best response to the notion of a “black Star Wars,” stating that since Star Wars is mainly populated by aliens, Red Tails is more accurately “the American Star Wars.”

George Lucas once told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that Red Tails was “as close as you’ll ever get to Episode VII.” As we are now on the eve of a new Star Wars movie, that may be the biggest lie this side of Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter. But that doesn’t make Red Tails irrelevant: If anything, the filmmakers behind the new movies should follow its lead, as it captures the sense of fun that was present in the original trilogy, particularly the 1977 original. In about a month, The Force Awakens will be released in theaters. In the meantime, sate your appetite for aerial dogfights, derring-do, heroes, and villains with Red Tails.