HURRY UP AND WAIT: The Tuskegee airmen were trained as fighter pilots in 1940, but were relegated to an isolated base at the Tuskegee Institute because the armed forces were racially segregated at that time. Even when the United States entered the second world war, it took several years until they were allowed to enter into combat. Their competence, bravery and valor in over 1500 missions showed that they were as good, if not better, than other units in the armed forces, and helped eliminate racial discrimination in the U.S. military forces.
The Tuskegee airmen is the nickname given to the 332nd Fighter Group, the first squadron of African-American aviators ever trained by the U.S. Air Force. Formed in 1940, the historic unit was stationed at a base on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama because the armed forces were still racially segregated.
After America entered World War II, the government was still reluctant to deploy these pioneering pilots overseas, out of a concern that the presence of black officers in the midst of white soldiers might have a negative effect on military morale. Consequently, the Tuskegee airmen languished stateside for several years, seeing no action until they were finally cleared for combat in the European theater of operations.
Upon arriving in Italy, their second rate airplanes were upgraded to state-of-the-art P-51 Mustang fighter planes, which they flew to escort B-17 bombers on dangerous raids deep into Germany. The untested pilots performed admirably on over 1,500 successful missions and demonstrated their competence and valor.
Red Tails is an eye-popping special effects movie which portrays these unappreciated veterans’ daring exploits in the war, while simultaneously chronicling their uncompromising quest for dignity in the face of the ever present humiliation of discrimination. The movie marks the feature film debut of Anthony Hemingway, who is previously best known for having shot episodes of several TV series, including The Wire, True Blood, Treme, The Closer, and CSI:NY.
The picture was produced by Lucasfilm where it has been a pet project of the studio’s founder, George Lucas, for the past quarter-century. It features an ensemble cast headed by Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding and Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard.
Aside from raising the question of the arbitrary color line, the plot reads like a typical war movie, with its typical tight knit crew of colorful characters. Each is a simplistic archetype, like the ill fated pilot you know isn’t long for this world the moment he’s shown sitting in his cockpit gazing fondly at a picture of his fiancée right before he takes off.
Another familiar figure is the cigar chomping major (Gooding), a paternalistic pontificator who delivers inspirational speeches about God, mom and apple pie. He cares about each of the men under his command, including alcoholic “Easy” Julian (Parker); daredevil “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo); class clown “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley); and “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds), a youngster who yearns to be taken seriously by his teasing colleagues.
Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, we find Colonel A.J. Bullard (Howard) tirelessly lobbying the military brass to put an end to racial discrimination against the Tuskegee airmen. In the end, the film is more memorable for its spectacular action sequences than for the corny dialogue which ranges from “We’re on the side of God Almighty!” to trite declarations such as “Let’s give those newspapers something to write about!”
Nonetheless, Red Tails is a long overdue tribute to a group of intrepid World War II heroes who never let their second-class status diminish their patriotism.
Very Good (HHH). Rated PG-13 for violence and profanity. Running time: 125 minutes. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.