They were known officially as the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and more popularly known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Those lucky enough to fly with them called them the Red Tails for their brightly painted P-47s. They were the first African-American military aviators and they took flight during World War II when many of their stateside counterparts were unable to drink out of water fountains, use restrooms, or swim in pools that bore signs reading "whites only."

"Whites only" was the attitude when it came to flying as well. Black men were considered constitutionally unfit for the rigors of flying and so had to fight WWII on two fronts—against the Axis alliance and against prejudicial brass in Washington D.C. who wanted to shutter the Tuskegee program that created a pool of pilots for the military to train. It's these two fights that executive producer George Lucas has labored for more than 20 years to bring to the big screen—a labor that becomes reality today with Red Tails.

Elijah Kelley as 'Joker'

Elijah Kelley as 'Joker'

The aerial action is fast and furious from the opening credits, showing German and American pilots dogfighting in the European theater. But the heroes of our story are miles away, doing routine patrols of quiet stretches of countryside in their woefully outdated planes, unable to join the fighting because of the color of their skin. We're introduced to two of our central characters—Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo)—and the tension of their relationship when they encounter a slow-moving train that they suspect of carrying German military equipment As the ranking officer, Easy directs his squadron to engage the train with caution. Lightning defies orders, makes a more dangerous approach to the train, manages to destroy the train in dramatic fashion, busts up his own plane a bit, and emerges emboldened, all to Easy's chagrin.

To my chagrin, I found Easy and Lightning and the rest of the boys—Smokey, Joker, Bumps, Ray Gun, Coffee—a menagerie of clichéd archetypes of black men and stereotypes of African-American culture. Within the first few moments, we're introduced to the oversexed black man, someone makes a crack about being as happy as a church lady, and another who, while assessing whether the German train's cargo is cows or guns, quips, "You don't want to shoot up cows unless you're planning an barbeque." I braced for the moment the camera would pan to a pilot cooking up some collard greens in his cockpit.

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David Oyelowo as 'Lightning'

David Oyelowo as 'Lightning'

Archetypes in and of themselves make for a bad story. But in a movie about black men fighting against racism and stereotypes, these characterizations seem particularly pernicious. They are not helped by a ham-fisted script that features the dialogue equivalent of a hero shot every two to four minutes, some version of we will overcome! being the subtext (or text) of almost every conversation. Lobbying in D.C. for the ability of his men to see some real action, you could almost hear a fife start a lonely battle hymn every time Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) opened his mouth.

As the military equivalent of middle management, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a source of weary platitudes about fighting. The performance is strangely wan for the usually magnetic Gooding, who sometimes seems to be smoking his pipe and wondering what will happen next.

The Red Tails do get to see some action, assigned to escort bombers into enemy territory, and distinguish themselves by being disciplined enough to stay with their charges instead of peeling off to pursue glory in individual kills (much to Lightning's chagrin). Regardless of the script, fans of aviation and small planes are likely to thrill at the scenes of dogfighting and aerial combat, produced by the people who brought you Star Wars. Bombardiers, white pilots who had cruelly shunned the black pilots, begin requesting the Red Tails protection. And the rest is history.

Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Stance

Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Stance

It is worth noting that everyone in this movie is painted with the cliché gloss—the pale, evil German with a menacing scar under his eye, the Italian beauty who captures Lightning's heart without a word of English, the white military establishment that sneers and snarls its prejudice. In fact, I think if the filmmakers had pushed this just a little further, they could have made a Frank Miller-esque comic book adaptation of the story that would been more creative and also more interesting to the target audience.

The aerial scenes are worth watching

The aerial scenes are worth watching

During an appearance on The Daily Show, George Lucas said, "I wanted to make an inspirational for teenage boys. I wanted to show that they have heroes and, you know, it's not Glory, where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. These were real heroes." Indeed, the Red Tails were remarkable men and are worthy of a great American movie. This isn't it. Lucas's persistence in telling this story—pushing against studios that insisted a movie with a predominantly black cast wouldn't be profitable enough overseas to make it worth their while and ultimately funding the movie and its distribution himself—is laudable. But if you're not a teenage boy, you might find the story in Red Tails itself less than inspirational.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Have you ever been motivated to overcome someone's negative attitude about you to achieve something great or important? What was the motivation?
  2. The negative racial attitudes depicted in Red Tails are very real for their time, and haven't completely disappeared today, despite significant improvements in the ways the law and society view minorities. In what places or contexts do you still observe racial prejudice today? What do you do or say when you see instances of racism or prejudice?
  3. One of the pilots calls on "black Jesus" to provide protection while flying. Where do you put your hope and trust when you sense danger or difficulty? If God or Jesus, what aspect of his person gives you the greatest sense of connection to him and/or comfort?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Red Tails is rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence. Aerial dogfighting leads to several explosions and a handful of injuries, a couple of them gruesome.

Red Tails
Our Rating
½ Stars - Poor
Average Rating
(12 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for some sequences of war violence)
Directed By
Anthony Hemingway
Run Time
2 hours 5 minutes
Cuba Gooding Jr., Gerald McRaney, David Oyelowo
Theatre Release
January 20, 2012 by 20th Century Fox
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