Lucasfilm, 2012, 125 minutes
Cast: Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Elijah Kelley, Daniela Ruah, Bryan Cranston and Gerald McRaney
Screenplay: John Ridley and Aaron McGruder
Based on the book Red Tails by John B. Holway
Producer: Rick McCallum
Co-producer: Ales Komarek
Executive producers: George Lucas and Chas. Floyd Johnson
Director: Anthony Hemingway
As it seemed increasingly likely that the United States would be drawn into WWII, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave into pressure from black voters and pushed the Army Air Corps to form a fighter squadron with black pilots. Described as the Tuskegee Experiment because the pilots were trained at the Tuskegee Institute, the success or failure of the squadron would prove whether or not black pilots were capable of performing the complex task of flying planes in combat. The airfield was located in the south, so the pilots were exposed to racism outside of the base, but they completed their training without incident. Although expanded to form a fighter group, the 332nd Fighter Group, the senior leadership of the Air Corps had little confidence in black pilots, therefore the group was initially assigned to patrol duties in North Africa far from the front. However, their professional attitude combined with manpower needs meant that it was dispatched to assist with the landings at Anzio during the Italian Campaign. Nicknamed the Red Tails because the nose cones and tails of their P-51 fighters were painted red, they escorted bombers during raids on Occupied Europe, where they earned an impressive reputation due to their record of bringing bombers safely home.
In 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group is flying outdated P-40s in Italy far from the front lines. Deprived of real targets, the pilots and the ground crew are bored. The script focuses on a flight of four pilots: Samuel ‘Joker’ George (Elijah Kelly), Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (David Oyelowo), Ray ‘Raygun’ Gannon (Tristan Wilds) and Martin ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker). The pilots fear that the Air Corps is about to shut down the group, claiming that the Tuskegee Experiment has failed. However, Lt. Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard), the group’s commander, defends the group at the Pentagon, aided by Lt. Col. Tomilson, a white officer, who risks his career to arrange for the squadron to fly cover for Operation Shingle, a landing on the Italian coast.
Aside from the institutionalized racism within the Army Air Corps, the four pilots struggle with personal issues, especially the two leads. Lightning is a daredevil, who takes increasingly dangerous risks until a romance with an Italian woman calms him down, while Easy has a drinking problem that endangers his fellow pilots. The squadron’s good performance during the landing wins Bullard an interview with General Lunz (Gerald McRaney), head of the USAAF Bomber Command, who needs fighters who will defend his bombers instead of chasing victories. After Bullard guarantees that his group can cut losses by 70-80% if they get new planes, the group is issued P-51 Mustangs, probably the best American fighter plane during WWII. The Red Tails back up Bullard’s claim, refusing to bite when the Germans try to lure the fighters away from the bombers. The pilots’ determination to protect the bombers earns the gratitude of the bomber crews, which breaks down racial barriers. However, unknown to the American pilots, they repeatedly encounter the same German ace during their battles with the Luftwaffe, and he eventually claims one of their lives.
The movie begins with a quote from a 1925 U.S. Army War College study: “Blacks are mentally inferior by nature, subservient, and cowards in the face of danger. They are therefore unfit for combat.” This quote is taken from a real report on the combat effectiveness of blacks but the script does not actually explain the Tuskegee Experiment. That single, brief quote is intended to show that the American military was still segregated in WWII, and that blacks were perceived to be unable to handle the complex tasks involved in flying planes. It may seem strange that there is absolutely no explanation of this situation in the movie, but executive producer George Lucas has plans for a prequel and a sequel, therefore the context will undoubtedly appear in the prequel.
While the majority of viewers are undoubtedly content to wait several years for the prequel, for the less-patient, here is the real situation that led to the Tuskegee Experiment. Despite his reputation as a liberal, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was so determined to avoid offending southern Democrats that he even banned black reporters from White House press conferences. However, Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), warned FDR that blacks would not vote Democrat forever, since they wanted more equality in exchange for their votes. When Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie promised to end segregation in the military in an attempt to lure black voters back to the Republican party, FDR pressured the military to recruit more blacks. Although superficially impressive, FDR’s response was token measures, and black enlistees still found themselves working in menial tasks. Secretary of War Henry Stimson refused to end segregation, claiming that it had worked well in the past, so it would continue to work well in the present.
After a great deal of public outcry, the Army Air Corps agreed to make an experiment, the formation of an all-black fighter squadron, the 99th Squadron. The establishment of a segregated flying unit was not popular in the black community, which believed that discrimination would not end until the military was desegregated. In fact, black leaders, especially the black-owned newspapers, called for a double victory, over Facism abroad and over racism at home. Although Tuskegee, Alabama was known for racism and violence towards blacks, it was selected as the training area for the 99th Squadron because the Tuskegee Institute was a black college with its own airfield and excellent weather for flying.
Since the squadron needed a commander, Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a member of the first class of pilots, was promoted to lieutenant colonel shortly after completing training. As one of two black officers (the other officer was his father) serving in the Army when the United States entered the war, Davis was the natural choice for command of the squadron. The initial plan was for a single fighter squadron, but Pearl Harbor sparked a massive increase in the size of the military, and the Tuskegee program was rapidly expanded to three more fighter squadrons and a bombing squadron.
The training program at Tuskegee was openly referred to as an experiment within the higher levels of the air force because it would determine whether segregation would continue, whether black pilots were ready for combat, and whether blacks were capable of operating a squadron. Larger issues than a single fighter squadron with black pilots were at stake. Jim Crow laws were based on the belief that blacks were only fit for menial tasks under the supervision of whites. If blacks could prove that they could handle every aspect related to operating a fighter squadron, including plane maintenance and repair, mission planning, pilot training and communications, it would become much harder to defend segregation. This experiment did not happen in a vacuum, since the NAACP and black newspapers had been intensifying their efforts to end Jim Crow laws. During the same period, black organizations, in particular the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led by A. Philip Randolph, had successfully pressed the government to improve treatment for blacks working in the war materiel manufacturing industry. When Randolph began organizing an all-black March on Washington in the summer of 1941, the administration feared that it would lead to racial violence. Attempts to persuade Randolph to call off the march failed until FDR backed down and issued the executive order Fair Employment Practices, which ended official discrimination in government and the defense industries, but not the military.
Reaching Casablanca, Morocco in April 1943, the men of the 99th Squadron found that the fighting in North Africa was almost finished. Issued new P-40 fighters, the pilots began to see combat as part of the 33rd Fighter Group while defending B-17 and B-24 bombers making runs against the Italian island of Pantelleria. Attacks by German fighters occurred on a near daily basis, and Lieutenant Charles B. Hall scored the squadron’s first confirmed victory on July 2, 1943.
When Lt. Col. Davis was sent back to the United States in September to take command of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, Colonel William Momyer, the commander of the 33rd Fighter Group, took advantage of his absence to produce a report that directly criticized the black pilots as lacking the bravery needed for aerial combat, supporting his claim with the low number of enemy kills by the squadron when compared with white squadrons, neglecting to mention that the squadron had been confined to patrolling safe areas. The report received backing from senior officers as it made its way up the chain of command, thus threatening to have all black pilots re-assigned to support duties. Supported by the testimony of famous correspondent Ernie Pyle, and the outrage of the black press, Davis firmly defended the squadron’s record in front of the War Department’s Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies, headed by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy. After Chief-of-staff General George Marshall commissioned a study of the squadron’s effectiveness it was demonstrated that they were equal to the other squadrons, so the squadron was transferred to a different fighter group, whose commander was happy to work with the black pilots, assigning them to combat missions.
The attempt to cancel the Tuskegee Experiment is explored in the movie when Bullard defends the group at the Pentagon against Colonel William Mortamus (Bryan Cranston), who appears to be standing in for Momyer. The problem with the scene in the Pentagon is that Mortamus is the primary obstacle to the Red Tails seeing combat, even though he is a mere colonel. While the real Colonel Momyer initiated the report, it only gained traction because the senior leadership of the Army Air Corps was looking for an excuse to end the experiment in order to quash radical notions of equality, thus ensuring that blacks remained in their place. Most important, public outcry and intense lobbying by the NAACP and black-owned newspapers forced the War Department to take the issue seriously. However, instead of giving well-deserved credit to the newspapers and the NAACP, the script makes a well-meaning white officer the savior of the Red Tails, bringing new meaning to the term white-washed. Since one white officer, Col. Mortamus, states openly that he will never accept that blacks can fly in combat and another white officer, Lt. Col. Tomilson, risks his career to get them into combat, the audience will likely think that a few hard-core racists were the problem, not the military as a whole.
One of the few scenes in the movie that rings true is when Major Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the second-in-command of the squadron, handles the pilots’ fears by pointing out that it would have been naive to expect that a hundred years of bigotry would disappear once they put on the uniform, and commenting that it is a miracle that they are flying planes, not mopping floors. This observation was unfortunately true given the habit of the army command of assigning black units labor duties, instead of combat postings, after they had completed their training.
Artistic license is taken with the chronology of events in order to compress the story to fit within the two hours. The screen pilots achieve their first victories while covering the landings at Anzio, even though the real members of the squadron had already shot down enemy planes months before the Anzio campaign. The fictional General Lunz offers to provide the group with new planes if they will protect his bombers, but the real pilots had already been escorting bombers for months before receiving the P-51 Mustangs that would give them their distinctive look. Lacking enough paint for the planes, the mechanics painted the tails and nose spinners red to ensure that the rest of the paint could be used for more planes, therefore the 332nd became known as the Red Tails. Davis repeatedly emphasized to the pilots that their job was to defend the bombers, not chase enemy fighters to improve their score, and the 332nd Group became the preferred choice as escorts by bomber pilots during raids on heavily guarded industrial targets in Germany and Austria. The 332nd’s dedication ensured that it achieved the impressive record of flying 200 bomber-escort missions without losing a single bomber on February 28, 1945. In a moving scene, Bullard captures Davis’ emphasis on protecting the bombers.
The climatic battle takes place during a massive bombing mission on Berlin, and the screen Red Tails encounter German jets for the first time. While the aerial scenes are the movie’s strong point, the Red Tails take out the jets too easily, since the jets were shot down for the simple reason that they were greatly outnumbered and the sky was filled with enemy planes.
Given the personal problems of the lead characters, it makes sense to use fictional names, but why was every single character in the movie fictional? Was Bullard named after Eugene Bullard, a black aviator, who had flown with the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of foreign pilots fighting for France during WWI, but was refused admission to the Army Air Corps when the United States entered the war?
Executive producer George Lucas has said that the movie was intended for teenage boys, but he must have a really low opinion of teenage boys. The complex factors involved in the Tuskegee Experience are boiled down to one blatantly racist officer who refuses to accept that blacks can fly and one sympathetic white officer who risks his career to let the Red Tails fly combat missions. Were the two white officers intended to balance each other and show that racism was not institutionalized in an attempt to convince a studio to finance the film?
Despite the relatively low budget, Lucas attracted a good cast, but did not know what to do with most of them. The lead actors do the best they can with the stale dialogue, but the supporting actors are woefully underused, proving that actors are given more opportunity to build characters in cable shows. Bryan Cranston has won rave reviews for his performance in Breaking Bad, but he plays Colonel Mortamus as a one-note racist. Gerald McRaney projected a shiver-inducing menace on Deadwood but he seems to have done all of his scenes in one take while reading dialogue he had been given five minutes before.
The movie dealt with the war and entrenched racism in the military, which seems like sufficient material but Lucas apparently was not satisfied, so there is an unnecessary personal conflict because the flight commander has a drinking problem and clashes with his wingman who thinks he is a danger. The script focuses on the four pilots of the flight, which takes away from the squadron as a whole.
Speaking of the script, Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks is one of the most brilliant, provocative shows on television, and he was involved with the script? How? Is everyone simply geeking out when they deal with George “Star Wars” Lucas and unable to just admit that the dialogue is flat and the scenes clunky? I do not criticize director Anthony Hemingway because he was simply hired to work on Lucas’ project. In fact, Hemingway was unable to finish the film because he had been hired to direct HBO’s new series Treme, so Lucas directed the reshoots.
Lucas has described Red Tails as a patriotic, jingoistic film that is designed to show teenage boys that there are heroes. It definitely is jingoistic and two-dimensional. However, rather than taking inspiration from the patriotic war films of the 1940s and 1950s with their simple depictions of good vs. evil, the structure and tone of Red Tails resemble those movies so closely that I honestly wonder if Lucas has actually watched any movies or television shows from the last decade.
Did the movie need lengthy scenes of a captured pilot in a German prison camp? It is nice to see that the captured pilot is accepted by his fellow prisoners but the whole escape attempt seems superfluous for a movie about aerial combat. This may be an unfair criticism since Lucas has spent most of the past decade endlessly recycling storylines in the Star Wars universe, so he may have lost his perspective. Since the immensely profitable Star Wars movies are filled with daring escapes from prisons and enemy bases, Lucas may have felt uncomfortable straying from a successful formula. Or the adulation of millions of fanboys and inconceivable financial wealth have destroyed whatever creative spark he initially had.
Unsurprisingly, the aerial scenes are gorgeous, and the movie presents the chaotic nature of aerial dogfights.
Lucas financed the production on his own, and then found that none of the studios would distribute it because there were no major white characters, so it would not do well overseas, which is critical since the overseas market is larger than the domestic market. It is depressing that twenty-three years after Glory (1989), no Hollywood studio will be involved in a project unless there is at least one major white character.
Despite my many, many criticisms of the movie, Lucas honestly deserves credit for persevering with the project, being honest that race was the problem, and putting up his own money, which is not a common occurrence in Hollywood. In fact, it seems to be a club of two: George Lucas and Mel Gibson.
I admit that I am surprised that Lucas wants to make both a prequel and a sequel. The prequel could deal with the political struggle to win the right to fight and the training at the Tuskegee Institute. In the hands of a good director and writer, the movie could be quite interesting. However, the sequel would be dispiriting since it would presumably cover the controversy with the bombing squadron, which never saw combat, and the disillusionment that the Red Tails experienced when the war ended and they returned home. This decision begs the question: is George Lucas capable of only doing trilogies?
Red Tails is a mediocre movie about an important subject.