Recognized by the red-painted tails of their P-47 aircraft, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American aviators in the United States armed forces. When the entire world was at odds during World War II, a group of young black men (mostly African American, but a few of Haitian descent) demanded to fight against injustice and inhumanity abroad on behalf of a country that was struggling with its own unjust and inhumane practices at home. After the War, the ridiculousness of their exclusion prior to it was apparent: the Tuskegee Airmen received eight Purple Hearts, an estimated one hundred and fifty Distinguished Flying Crosses, and three hundred Congressional Gold Medals as a result of their successful combats.
Red Tails, George Lucas’s 2012 film portrayal of these airmen, is noteworthy for many reasons. First and foremost, it is a film that was birthed from Lucas’s determination to see it hit the big screen. (It only took him twenty-three years and more than fifty eight million dollars to do it.) Second, the movie’s significance lies in its themes. The film shows what happens when a group chooses sacrifice over comfort. It depicts what happens when men choose team over self, and what happens when they choose themselves above all else. The movie shows viewers that actions, whether steeped in humility or pride, all have consequences. As a result, not all of the movie’s heroes live. Some die tragic deaths—results of their action, albeit courageous or self-serving.
Alongside the movie’s strengths are its weaknesses: characters that don’t seem quite so realistic, scenes that try to evoke the viewer’s emotions, and pop culture vernacular interjected for comedy, even though the sayings didn’t exist in the 1940’s. The movie struggles with how to tell the heroic story of the Tuskegee Airmen as a group with the individual stories of its members, leaving parts of it feeling contrived.
Like most war movies, it stars well-known actors (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrance Howard), but unlike most war stories, it doesn’t have the weight of fifty-eight million dollars, the doomsday predictions of Hollywood that says all-black casts don’t bode well for movie profits, and the hopes of a community waiting for its story to be told—all riding on its wings. Although Red Tails isn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, it certainly isn’t the worst. It tells a story that needs to be heard, especially in a country whose culture favors feel-good, ahistorical accounts and instant, personal gratification above all else.
Red Tails + Black Pilots = A Good Film for Black History Month