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In 1925, a U.S. War Department study of African-Americans' participation in World War I deemed black soldiers "inferior" and "cowards," untrustworthy in the heat of battle. Two decades later, however, that prejudiced assessment would be roundly rebuked by the courage and flying finesse of an all-black group of pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Before these flyers could fully join the fray in the skies above Europe, however, they would first have to win another battle back home—the battle against an establishment still entrenched in the conviction that black pilots were bad pilots.
Red Tails relays the essence of their true story, with fictionalized characters standing in for historical ones.
It's 1944, two years after the Army officially launched its experimental pilot training program for black soldiers in Tuskegee, Ala. Graduates of that program, the pilots and ground crew of the 332nd Fighter Group, are biding their time at Ramitelli Airfield in Italy. The unit sees regular action piloting dilapidated P-40 fighters to raid German trains and convoys. But that's nothing compared to the real combat happening 100 miles to the north.
"What we do, how well we do it, does it matter?" asks jaded maverick Joe "Lightning" Little during a post-sortie debriefing. It does, insists senior officer Maj. Stance. In fact, he says, the 332nd's leader, Col. A.J. Bullard, is Stateside even as they speak, trying to convince top Army brass that his boys have what it takes to make a deciding difference in the overall war effort, not just in the mop-up work behind the front lines.
Bullard returns with good news: Operation Shingle will require the 332nd to fly cover for an important amphibious landing. Lightning and his fellow pilots—squad leader Marty "Easy" Julian, Ray "Junior" Gannon, Samuel "Joker" George, Andrew "Smoky" Salem and David "Deke" Watkins, among others—cheer. Soon they're plunking .50 caliber rounds into Messerschmitt wings and cratering a German airbase.
That victory paves the way for an even bigger opportunity: escorting B-17s on their bombing runs over Berlin … in brand spanking new P-51 Mustangs.
The tails of which are all painted red.
Red Tails brims with positive themes about overcoming racism, facing personal weakness, forging friendships, determination, honor and bravery. Col. Bullard proudly represents the Tuskegee Airmen as he argues for a greater role for them. "When we came under your command," he says to a senior officer in Washington, "you stated very clearly that we would never find Negroes who could pass a pilots' exam, make it through flight school, survive basic combat. We've done all of that. We have a right to fight for our country, the same as every other American. We will not go away."
The 332nd is subsequently asked to provide close-in bomber protection, instead of disengaging and chasing the German fighters. At first, the men are discouraged by the new strategy. But they're asked to put the bomber crews' welfare ahead of their own desire for glory. "At all costs, you protect the heavies," Maj. Stance instructs. "One bomber, that's 10 men. We count our victories by the bombers we get to their targets, by the husbands we return to their wives, by the fathers we give back to their children." And the Red Tails, as the group comes to be known, does exactly that, significantly cutting the bomber group's losses.
The Red Tails' bravery wins admiration from white bomber crews who had once mocked them, helping to break down the wall of segregation between the two races.
Along the way, the men have to face their own fears about mortality. When a new pilot shows up and is eager to get into the fray, Easy wisely says, "Don't be in a hurry to get to the killing part." He also says anyone who brags that they're not afraid to die is "either a liar or a fool." That said, the pilots routinely put themselves at risk for each other and for their country, with some making the ultimate sacrifice.
When the pilots are not in the sky, the plot largely turns around how Easy and Lightning try to help each other. Easy relies on alcohol to steady his nerves, a destructive habit Lightning repeatedly counsels him to relinquish. Lightning is a rebellious sort who repeatedly disobeys Easy's orders. Eventually the friends reach a deal: Easy agrees to stop drinking if Lightning will agree to follow orders.
Col. Bullard and Maj. Stance confront both of these men as well, telling Easy to let go of his self-pity, and exhorting Lightning to release his anger (fueled by his mistreatment by whites) and his penchant for picking fights.
Several pilots are Christians who believe prayer is key to staying safe in combat. One is a pilot with the call sign Deke—short for Deacon—who carries a picture of an African-American Savior whom he affectionately refers to as "Black Jesus." At one point he prays, "Black Jesus, we thank You for bringing Red Squadron home."
A spirited conversation between Deke and Joker (who often wins at poker) revolves around whether God protects pilots in battle or whether they're just lucky. Deke insists that prayer makes a difference, while Joker is agnostic on that front.
A chaplain prays for the squadron's protection, ending his intercession in Jesus' name. An officer gives a speech in which he says God is on the Red Tails' side.
Lightning has a reputation as a love-'em-and-leave-'em ladies' man. When he can't stop yawning during one mission, his fellow pilots give him grief about the woman he was with the night before.
Then Lightning flies over a town and sees an especially beautiful woman below. He quickly tracks her down, and despite the language barrier they fall in love. They kiss several times. One scene pictures them in a room alone, apparently after spending the night together. (He's shown shirtless and she's wearing a gauzy camisole.) Lightning eventually proposes to her.
Red Tails realistically depicts many aspects of aerial warfare. We repeatedly see planes being ripped apart by bullets and exploding. Inside those planes, pilots and gunners are often wounded by bullets, and blood spray is frequent. They're also set on fire by the explosions. One pilot's leg gets gashed.
Germans on the ground are killed in a raid on their airbase. Several are seen running around on fire. After one of the Red Tails crash-lands, we later hear that he survived but has third-degree burns on much of his body.
Lightning responds to a racist taunt from a white officer by starting a brawl.
Crude or Profane Language
A half-dozen-plus s-words. God's name is abused five or six times (three times with "d‑‑n"), and Jesus' is misused twice. We hear about 20 uses each of "h‑‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Characters say "a‑‑" six or seven times and "b‑‑ch" three or four. We hear a crude reference to the male anatomy.
A white officer calls a black officer a "n-gger."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Before and after almost every mission, we see Easy take slugs from a steel flask or a bottle of whiskey to calm his nerves. Though Easy's never shown drunk, he clearly has a drinking problem. And it's equally clear to everyone that Easy's not-so-secret compulsion is a liability. Then, at a crucial moment after losing a team member, Easy resists the temptation to drink and pours out the contents of a whiskey bottle.
Several scenes take place at the officers' club where airmen and soldiers drink. To salute the Red Tails after they successfully escort a group of bombers, white officers buy the black pilots drinks. We see shots being filled and emptied.
Lightning smokes a cigar. Maj. Stance always has his signature pipe in his mouth. Smoky's speech is impaired by a wad of chewing tobacco.
Other Negative Elements
George Lucas began his work on Red Tails back in 1988. And he now says that part of the reason it took so long to make is that he found himself flying into stiff Hollywood headwinds when it came to producing a movie with what's essentially an all-black cast. "I showed it to all of [the major studios] and they said, 'No. We don't know how to market a movie like this,'" he told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. "They don't believe there's any foreign market for it, and that's 60% of their profit."
In an extensive interview with The New York Times' Bryan Curtis, Lucas imagined a fruitless conversation with a studio head going like this:
"They say, 'Now, who are you making this for?'"
"I'm making it for black teenagers."
"And you're doing it as a throwback movie? You're not going to do it as a hip, happening-now, music-video kind of movie?"
"No, that's not a smart thing to do. There's not really going to be a lot of swearing in it. There's probably not going to be a huge amount of blood in it. Nobody's head's going to get blown off."
"And you're going to be very patriotic—you're making a black movie that's patriotic?"
"They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does. And they have a right to have it kind of Hollywood-ized and aggrandized and made corny and wonderful just like anybody else does. Even if that's not the fashion right now."
So … Lucas decided to foot the bill himself: $58 million for production and another $35 million for marketing and distribution, according to the BBC. It was a labor of love driven by his desire to tell the compelling story of the Tuskegee Airmen. "I thought their story would make a great film," Lucas says in the Red Tails production notes. "An inspirational one that shows the incredible things these men went through to patriotically serve with valor and help the world battle back the evils of fascism. It's an amazing story, and I wanted to memorialize it."
Lucas even compares the film to another little movie he's pretty well known for: "Just like Star Wars, [Red Tails] is a big action picture, lots of dog fights, lots of excitement, but it's basically about a bunch of kids that went through an amazing journey and ultimately came out heroes. They're the knights of the contemporary age and I'm hoping that this film is an inspiration to young people today."
To helm his project, Lucas picked TV director Anthony Hemingway, who says, "I feel a sense of responsibility to make the right moves and work towards becoming what I hope will be an example to anyone, especially young black kids." Screenwriter John Ridley adds, "I wanted the film to be exciting and inspiring to young people. At the same time, for someone like my father, I wanted the film to be engaging on an intellectual level and be realistic in terms of its portrayal of the time and the War."
In some very important ways, Red Tails absolutely succeeds in accomplishing these goals. And I suspect it may very well introduce the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen to a generation that's never heard of them. Their heroic efforts in battles against both racism and fascism are likely to leave many moviegoers proud of their efforts and misty-eyed at the same time.
But I have to end with a caution: Never mind Lucas' claim that there's not really going to be a lot of swearing in it. The realistic portrayal Ridley mentions involves the inclusion of quite a few vulgarities—nearly 70 in all, inclusive of s-words and abuses of Jesus' name. We see fatality after fatality in the cockpit. And a main character carries on a (largely unseen) sexual relationship outside of marriage, with nary a negative comment made about it.
For kids weaned on Call of Duty's M-rated messiness, those things might not seem excessive. But that doesn't mean the film's heroic, inspirational messages aren't undermined by them.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Nate Parker as Marty 'Easy' Julian; David Oyelowo as Joe 'Lightning' Little; Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuelle Stance; Terrence Howard as Colonel A.J. Bullard; Daniela Ruah as Sofia; Tristan Wilds as Ray 'Junior' Gannon; Elijah Kelley as Samuel 'Joker' George; Ne-Yo as Andrew 'Smoky' Salem; Marcus T. Paulk as David 'Deke' Watkins; Andre Royo as Chief 'Coffee' Coleman
Anthony Hemingway ( )
20th Century Fox
January 20, 2012
May 22, 2012