Recalling an arguably more glorious era of American militarism, Red Tails is now available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Lucasfilm Ltd. The movie recounts the victories and struggles of the Tuskegee Airmen, a legendary group of African American World War II fighter pilots, as they attempt to ascend from forced and perfunctory second-class menial status within the ranks of the American Air Force and become recognized as the iconic and heroic fighter pilots the period exalted. Red Tails features Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as senior officers commanding the fleet, plus an exceptionally sleazy performance from Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston as a weatherbeaten racist tersely resigned to preserving the military status quo.
Red Tails follows an ensemble cast of young Air Force pilots stationed in Italy during the final months of World War II. The 332nd Fighter Group is a unit of African American flyers eager to cut their teeth on some air combat. Due to bureaucratic restrictions, however – erroneously justified by an outdated and prejudicial War College study, arbitrarily declaring Blacks “mentally inferior, by nature subservient, and cowards in the face of danger” – the U.S. Army has concluded that the members of the 332nd, despite demonstrably superior flight skills, are unfit for active combat, and have relegated them to a string of glorified security details and transport missions.
A combination of dwindling resources and adept political maneuvering on the part of the squadron’s superior officers barely prevents encroaching shut-down of the battalion at first, but as time wears on and the strength of the 332nd's skills become increasingly difficult to ignore, the pilots become increasingly ensnared in the triumphs and tragedies of full-on military engagement, as well as the consequent confrontations with their superior and fellow officers that their mounting accomplishments and recognition provoke.
Military movies with an aggressively patriotic and laudatory tone become tedious and sentimental easily, and that’s occasionally the case for Red Tails – it’s a straightforwardly pro-American movie that aggrandizes World War II military procedure, even while pointing up many of its bureaucratically scalding systematic inequalities. On the positive side, however, it’s nice to see a film about racial justice that emphasizes the struggles and triumphs of African American individuals themselves, rather than apologetically highlighting and grossly exaggerating the contributions of white allies, as is frequently the case in inexplicably beloved domestic treatments such as The Help.
The theatrical, soaring emotionality that characterizes Red Tails rarely centers explicitly on issues of race, and although the plot essentially hinges on a microcosmic struggle for racial integration, the film in a broader sense is a standard, typical war movie that isn’t about race at all, but about the familiar fears, challenges, and triumphs of military service for the individuals enduring them. The frustratingly prejudicial lack of institutional recognition, and the demoralizing, pointless mantle of racial hostility through which those struggles are filtered provocatively reduce themselves to mere background elements, and the result, surprisingly, is effective – instead of rhapsodizing about the need for racial equality, Red Tails straightforwardly demonstrates why, from a purely practical perspective, racism is counterproductive, damaging, and stupid.
Aside from its thematic strengths, Red Tails also boasts some notably applause-worthy CG effects. With the exception of close-up intercuts, pretty much all of the air combat sequences were done with CG animation and compositing, and their integration is impressively seamless. Lucasfilm’s disc is nicely tricked out with behind-the-scenes interviews and short docs, including Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen At War, an extended historical documentary incorporating interviews and background information about the actual Tuskegee Airmen, as well as a lengthy making-of featurette about the film’s production. Red Tails is definitely a movie fashioned after a certain traditional mold, but the combination of heightened sentimentality and underplayed social struggle is ultimately a satisfying backdrop for the movie’s rousing and technically impressive fight sequences, making it a basically recommendable release, just as long as you’re into that sort of thing.