Red Tails in the Sunset
January 23, 2012
By Jean Damu
Submitted to portside
Red Tails, the new George Lucas film depicting the
exploits of the Tuskeegee Airmen is to the history of
black fighter pilots during WWII what a sunset is to a
day- it's pretty to watch but no illumination is
However, (and with all due respect), for those of us
who wrote their high school book reports after reading
the Classic Comic version or watched the Disney Channel
version and perhaps even more worrisome, for those of
us who may be Tyler Perry fans, then Red Tails, is
surely a must see.
For those however who took the time to read a book or
take seriously African American's participation and
contributions to everyday life probably will want to
take a pass. Red Tails is decidedly not another Glory,
the 1989 Morgan Freeman film that was relatively
accurate in it s' telling the story of the
Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all black
infantry unit of the Civil War.
Red Tails, so named because the Tuskeegee airmen
painted the tails of their planes red, is a cartoonish
caricature of great fighting men who contributed much
to the world's titanic struggle against fascism that
was WWII. But who, according to Lucas and film writers
John Ridley (Under Cover Brother and Fox News
contributor) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks), had no
personal relationships with family or black women (not
one black woman appears in the film) and who were
hopelessly criminal in their refusal to follow orders
and complete a mission as assigned.
To be fair all the exploits attributed to the black
pilots in Red Tails are absolutely true. Black pilots
were originally assigned to strafing duty (the most
dangerous of all air assignments) with outdated planes.
They did blow up an ammunition train. They did destroy
a German airfield and one airman was among the first
allied pilots to shoot down an ME (Messerschmitt) 262
But for purposes of calming and soothing the qualms of
Lucas's financial backers and film industry banks who
feared a film with a nearly all black cast would bomb
(figuratively speaking of course) at the box office,
all these exploits are depicted as being carried out by
one lone rogue pilot, a pilot so undisciplined and
uncontrollable that in real life he would have been
subjected to court martial and likely expelled from the
Actually in real life the 332nd all black fighter group
was assigned to clear the sea-lanes and provide air
cover for the Allies invasion of Sicily. In the film
key members of the 332nd abandon their mission to
provide air cover and criminally wander off to bomb a
German airfield. Progressive military leaders don't
like to stifle self-initiative but David Oyelowo's role
as Joe Little, rogue fighter pilot, was beyond anything
reasonable or credible. Those kinds of stunts are far
more suited to Saturday morning television at which
McGruder is quite successful.
Far in excess of the cartoon caricatures that are the
Tuskeegee Airmen in Red Tails are the embarrassing,
emasculated 332nd squadron leading characters assigned
to Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Gooding is particularly annoying as an eternally
pacific, pipe-smoking mentor to his young protege
pilots. But what he comes across as is nothing more
than a pretentious McArthur wannabe, never personally
putting himself in harms way and never taking the damn
pipe out of his mouth. Meanwhile Howard's character,
Col. A. J. Bullard, ( a nice tip of the pilots cap to
Eugene Bullard, a black pilot who flew for the
Lafayette Esquadrille during WWI) is a thinly
disguised representation of the Tuskeegee Airmens'
primary leader, Lt. Col. (later General) Benjamin O.
Davis. In Red Tails both Howard and Goodings are little
more than an administrative pencil pushers far removed
from any form of combat and would more appropriately
have been costumed in aprons and granny hats rather
than flight jackets.
In reality Davis and other senior flight squadron
officers all had their own planes and fully
participated in combat missions. This was true not just
in the black units but all the white units as well.
During WWII the Army Air Corps was an OJT air force.
For everyone it was an On the Job Training because
military air science was a new field and few knew very
much about it.
Importantly Davis's plane was named "By Request,"
because after the Red Tails became known for providing
particularly close protection for bombing raids and
bomber groups losses diminished, they were requested
specifically by the white bomber groups for protection.
As a matter of course the actors can't be blamed for
the miserable script that was handed them. We have to
assume they did the best they could.
Curiously the Red Tails episode that raised the biggest
question centered on the pilot shot down, captured by
the Germans and taken to prison camp. What followed on
screen was apparently cut and pasted from the 2002
Bruce Willis vehicle, Hart's War, that featured
Terrence Howard as the downed Tuskeegee man.
A far more revealing episode could have been provided
about the two Red Tail pilots who actually were shot
down over Yugoslavia, rescued by an armed patrol of the
Yugoslav Communist Party and repatriated to the Allies
on the Italian border. But those kinds of political
points are not attractive to film writers and producers
sucking up to the banks.
But Ridley and Lucas somewhat redeem themselves.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Ridley
relates that in the run-up to actually writing the Red
Tails story Lucas provided him with a van full of
newspaper and magazine articles, and military combat
and personnel records that took months to research and
Unfortunately very little of Ridley's research found
its way into McGruder's clumsy script.
However, where Ridley's research paid off remarkably
well was in the making of the Red Tails companion
piece, Double Victory-the Documentary.
Here the real and nearly complete story of the
Tuskeegee airmen's struggle against fascism overseas
and racism at home is honestly and inspiringly told. It
ranks among the very best, if not the best documentary
ever made telling the role of black military men in
Black women's role as spiritual and material sustainers
of the black pilots as wives and girlfriends is fully
revealed. We learn that when the first class of
Tuskeegee airmen graduated Lena Horn attended the dance
that followed and danced with every graduating cadet.
We get misty eyed when one former Red Tail, now in his
mid eighties tells us that after the first graduation
dance, he walked his girlfriend home and asked, "Will
you fly with me for the rest of our lives?" Yes, she
Double Victory-the Documentary is absolutely everything
Red Tails is not. It's the only redeeming aspect of the
main feature. This is the film everyone absolutely
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