‘Red Tails’ soars – but lacks real historic context

Bombers take to the skies over Europe in 'Red Tails'
Bombers take to the skies over Europe in ‘Red Tails’

If you are a serious history buff, or want detailed information on the history and training of the famed Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, then director Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails is not the best choice available to you.

But don’t let that persuade you to skip this effective telling of the action and heroism faced by the all African-American unit of fighter pilots and their maintenance crews, along with the discrimination they continued to face in an era where they were finally given a chance to fight for their country.  Just as long as they didn’t try to eat at the “Whites-only” lunch counters or drink in any Officer’s Clubs.

George Lucas deserves a special award for shepherding this project through 23 years of development hell, finally pulling out his own checkbook and financing the picture when Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market this kind of film.

To some, this may be as close to Star Wars — Episode VII as we will ever be privileged to view, with stellar aerial footage based on the real-life exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group. This all-black unit began its action in World War II with hand-me-down aircraft, parts and missions that involved no real opportunity to mix things up with the Luftwaffe’s pilots.  So pilots like Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds) and David “Deke” Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) suddenly appear on-screen with no background about how black men came to be officers, gentlemen and fighter pilots more than 20 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 supposedly ended the days of when they had to sit at the back of the bus.

Cuba Gooding Jr. stars in 'Red Tails'
Cuba Gooding Jr. stars in ‘Red Tails’

“Lightning” becomes the focal point of the flying and the story of these men, as he is clearly the most gifted aviator among them.  He also manages to get involved with a local Italian woman (Daniela Ruah) who doesn’t speak English.  He of course, does not speak Italian, but the language of amore appears to conquer all.  But it is Lightning’s judgment that is called into question, given bad choices he makes and he nearly loses the opportunity to fly against the Germans he longs to shoot down.

One of those bad choices nearly costs him his wings.  Easy is the leader of the small group of pilots.  Outranked by Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard), Easy is in charge when they are airborne and it’s a duty and responsibility he takes seriously.  Especially when a few of his own choices become problematic.  He find his own way of coping and it is something that doesn’t bode well for anyone’s future.

We watch as Colonel Bullard fights in Washington, D.C. for the chance for his pilots to do more than shoot at trucks and other targets of low-importance.  Finally, the opportunity arises when white fighter pilots who are supposed to be flying cover for bombing missions suffer from target fixation and leave their assigned bombers alone to chase German fighter planes.

Their eagerness to shoot down fighters comes at a serious cost, as once they abandon the bombers, those big, slow planes are easy marks for other German fighter planes.  Including the first jet fighters in history, the ME-262s.

General Luntz (former Major Dad star Gerald McRaney) wants to give the 332nd a crack at flying cover for the bomber missions and gives Colonel Bullard’s pilots their long-sought opportunity.  As part of the deal, Colonel Bullard manages to obtain new P-51 aircraft for his pilots, and their crews paint the tails of these new planes a bright red.  Their initial mission is a great success as Colonel Bullard and Major Stance convince “Easy”, “Lightning” and the rest of the importance of staying with the bombers.  The bombers themselves ask that the “Red Tails” fly cover for them on future missions, as they know they will be safe under their watch.

This could have been a great film.  It suffers from the absence of the history of how these bold men came to be given the chance to fight for what they believe in.  It only touches briefly on the racism and discrimination they faced.  And in the end, it doesn’t do justice to the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were awarded 95 (the film claims 96) Distinguished Flying Crosses.  But as previously mentioned, the aerial sequences are wonderfully shot.  ACM (Air Combat Manuevering) or “dogfighting” as it is more commonly known is on display and it is a treat to view.

Buy a box of popcorn and after you view this, pick up the 1995 Made for HBO film on these brave men and learn their real story.

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