“Red Tails” takes place in Italy in 1944 during World War II, and tells the inspirational story of the Tuskegee Airmen. The group is composed of black pilots who triumph over racial stereotypes and prove themselves to be true heroes for their country. While this is certainly the accurate outcome of the 332nd Fighter Group’s success, the film glosses over some of the obstacles that these men had to overcome in a segregated US military.
The racism present in the film is surface-level and comic relief is often used to ease the tension caused by a racist statement or sentiment. The victories are emphasized but the struggles are downplayed, which is surprising with Aaron McGruder, creator of the controversial cartoon The Boondocks, as one of the script writers along with John Ridley.
“We Fight! We Fight! We Fight! We Fight! We Fight!” This chant can be heard on many trailers for “Red Tails,” but there are many associations that can be coupled with it.
George Lucas fought the movie studios to distribute the film, the black airmen in the film fought for their country in aerial combat against Germany and they also fought racism in efforts to actively participate in the war.
It has taken 23 years for Lucas to get “Red Tails” to the big screen. The action scenes are executed very well and the use of technologies of the 1940s and today is well balanced. But the ratio of racism to acceptance in the film is not as accurate.
While Major Emmanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) provides words of encouragement to the pilots on the air base, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) advocates in Washington for the fighter group to get more respectable assignments and decent planes to fly. The group had previously been assigned low-priority operations and given hand-me-down P-40 planes. Howard delivers a great performance with his adamant tone and no-nonsense stance, but the quick, positive results seem too easy.
Also, the attitudes of the white US soldiers are only briefly hostile before becoming overwhelmingly supportive of the black pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen show some frustration with the racism surrounding them, but it is certainly underplayed.
Personal issues seem to be more of a focus for the main characters in the film. Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), leads the unit in every battle, but has a drinking problem and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) is the best pilot in the group but is arrogant, disobedient and distracted by women. Yet, the two are best friends and help balance each other throughout the film. The sense of camaraderie among the other pilots is felt as well as they support each other during battles and on the air base.
Each actor brings much personality and likeability to his character. Nicknames abound with Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), Andrew “Smoky” Salem (Ne-Yo), Maurice “Bumps” Wilson (Michael B. Jordan), Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelly) and “Sticks” (Cliff “Method Man” Smith). The name of each pilot is painted on his plane, which is also distinguished from other planes in the US military because the tails are painted red.
When the 332nd Fighter Group escorts the bomber planes to their destinations, the white pilots are able to identify them by their “red tails” and begin addressing them as such. But such ready acknowledgement seems rushed in the film.
More in-depth racism is not the only element missing in the film. Many of the scenes and conversations seem cut short. With a running time of 125 minutes it is possible that Lucas was simply trying to make such a rich story fit in a mere two hours. But regardless of what is missing, what is present is a heart-warming story that successfully depicts the Tuskegee Airmen who left an indelible mark on history.
“Red Tails” is certainly a feel-good war movie. The racism is toned town and the heroism is highlighted, which doesn’t make it the best history lesson, but enjoyable nonetheless.