A 1925 Army War College report concluded that the “Negro man was immoral, mentally inferior to whites, profoundly superstitious, had less capacity for learning, and was a coward in darkness,” according to the press notes for “Red Tails.”
The reality turned out to be, as depicted in the highly engaging movie “Red Tails,” that the first African-American fighter pilots rained down bullets on Hitler’s Luftwaffe like borax on cockroaches. They even, in their relatively slower, red-tailed prop-driven P-51 Mustangs, literally blew the doors off a number of German Messerschmitt 252s, the world’s first fighter jets.
George Lucas (“Star Wars”) produced “Red Tails,” and while it is an invigorating historical war movie, it really ought to be seen as the tail-side of a coin, which has as its head-side the 1995 movie “The Tuskegee Airmen.” Viewed together, these movies collectively sum up the full story.
Reminiscent of the 1989 film “Glory” before it (about the first all-black 54th regiment of the Civil War), “Red Tails,” accompanied by a soaring martial music score, tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black aviator squadron of World War II. The squadron’s official title was the 332nd Fighter Group.
It shows their forbearance in the face of disrespect, racism, demoralizing tasks, and third-rate, hand-me-down planes and equipment. It also shows their rise to hard-won respect by the white American military establishment, as well as enemy forces.
The main storylines revolve around the leadership of the two main commanders, Colonel A.J. Bullard (played by Terrence Howard) and Major Emmanuel Stance (Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and the brotherly support and antagonism between the daredevil pilot Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo) and his squadron leader, Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker).
We see the relationship between the pilots and the plane mechanics. There’s a storyline about a downed Airman who ends up in the Stalag 18 German prison camp and attempts to escape. There’s an abundance of brilliant American vs. German dog-fighting scenes, lots of blowing up of Nazi stuff, a cute romance, and a running gag about one pilot’s source of inspiration—a picture of Black Jesus.
At first glance, there would appear to be a little too much hammy acting and general cheesiness, with everything being ever-so-slightly shiny. The costumes don’t give the feeling of having been lived in enough. Turns out, this was intentional. According to the press notes, the producers were going for a bit of a comic-book feel, designed to bring a larger-than-life, John Wayne quality to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Taking that into consideration, this airy, light-hearted, heroic treatment makes perfect sense and succeeds in its intention. The somewhat darker, more naturalistic “The Tuskegee Airmen” focuses a bit more on the tragic aspects and underscores the racism. As mentioned, both of these films together ultimately define the subject.
According to the film’s press notes, a medical study from that period claimed, “Negroes are incapable of handling complex machinery.” The reality turned out to be that the Tuskegee fighter-jocks announced their combat air patrol prowess with such authority that all-white bomber squadrons henceforth made exclusive requests for their chaperone services—to and from bomber targets.
Legend has it that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a single bomber. “Red Tails” will not lose your interest.