“Red Tails” (A Nickell-odeon Review)

February 17, 2012

This movie about the Tuskegee Airmen—the black American aviators of World War II—has an appropriately Forties feel to it. A mix of dogfights, on-the-ground conflicts (personal, military, and racial), and a love story that ends in tragedy, Red Tails should have been made decades ago.

Focusing on fictional airmen of the very real, if historically much neglected, 332nd Fighter Group stationed at an Italian airfield, the film takes its title from the crimson-painted tails of their P-51 fighters. The Tuskegee Airmen became the first black U.S. military pilots in history, serving as an effective response to a 1925 “study” by the U.S. Army War College which asserted the racist dogma that blacks had neither the intelligence, ambition, nor courage to be successful in combat.

(Civil rights leaders fought against the rejection, and eventually the War Department found both the money and the civilian flight schools agreeable to training African American pilots. Since 1939, the historically black Tuskegee Institute had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave Tuskegee’s budding program a boost when she flew with African American instructor C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. On landing, Mrs. Roosevelt cheerfully pronounced, “Well, you can fly all right!” Other gains followed. Due to military segregation of the day, separate African American flight surgeons were needed, for example.)

The essential plot of Red Tails is of course that of the airmen facing racial prejudice of their day, struggling to shed the n-word for the respectable (if now dated) “Negroes,” and to prove themselves in the air. But if ace pilot “Lightning” (David Oyelowo), a hotshot and ladies man, responds two-fistedly, his superior, “Easy” (Nate Parker), has his back—at least organizationally—and offers a cooler head.

Lightning’s daredevilry is impressive and helps the fighter group rack up victories. Indeed from 1943 to 1945 the Red Tails carried out thousands of largely successful missions, set a record for destroying five enemy planes in under four minutes, and saw its individual pilots earn some 1000 decorations and awards.

Executive producer George Lucas struggled to finance the $58 million motion picture in the face of major studios’ aversion. They feared the mostly African-American cast would limit box-office appeal. But finance it he did. On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Lucas admitted that the “patriotic” and “jingoistic” movie was also “old-fashioned” and even “corny” but said he wanted it to be “inspirational for teenage boys.”

I trust it will be. It was certainly so for this old, white, civil rights marcher and community organizer. Despite limitations (some animated aerial sequences could be more realistic, for instance), this “corny” but humanistic movie gets a good rating:

Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)

Three Nickels