Although the amazing story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been told by Hollywood before (HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen), Red Tails might be the best telling yet. Set for general release on Jan. 20, Red Tails is loosely based on the history of the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the “Red Tails.” This name was given to the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd because of the distinctive crimson paint on the tails of their P-51 Mustangs. While that much is true, the characters are fictional and the plot contains many stories that are composites of actual events.
What the movie gets right is its depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen’s battle to obtain new aircraft and the fight that the unit’s officers waged to get the 332nd into a combat role. The 332nd was assigned duties that prevented them from engaging in combat with enemy planes, and were then criticized by some in the War Department for not shooting down enemy aircraft. The “Red Tails” on film and in World War II had to work doubly hard and take enormous risks to earn the grudging respect of their superiors. Indeed, their near-flawless job of escorting the bombers into the heart of Nazi Germany earned that respect.
Predictably, this movie may annoy some students of history because, as a rule, historical movies have inaccuracies designed to move the plot along or provide entertainment for the majority of the audience. Red Tails is no exception, with a fanciful plot point of a Tuskegee Airman being shot down, captured, interned in a German POW camp, and then escaping to rejoin his unit. This was unnecessary, because the true story of Lt. Alexander Jefferson, a captured Tuskegee Airman, is much more compelling. Jefferson’s book, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW, tells the incredible story of his time as a POW.
On the other hand, things that may appear to be inaccurate on film are composites of events that did occur. For example, a German destroyer is strafed and sunk by two pilots flying P-40s. Although, this seemed farfetched, further research revealed that two P-47s, assigned to the 332nd, did strafe and cripple an Italian torpedo boat destroyer operated by the Germans off Trieste, Italy during operations in June 1944.
Despite heavy use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), the airplanes look superb. The movie has flying scenes with B-17 Flying Fortresses, C-47 Skytrains, P-40 Warhawks, Bf-109s, P-51 Mustangs, and ME-262s. For someone who has never seen these airplanes in flight, it is a treat to see them on film, CGI or not. One quibble with the CGI is that it allows the filmmaker, in this case director Anthony Hemingway, to have the airplanes perform maneuvers that are impossible. The director’s exaggerations were unnecessary. There was no need to have P-51s keeping up with the jet-powered ME-262, when the ME-262 could go over 100 mph faster. History is even more impressive, considering that during the March 24, 1945 mission to Berlin that is depicted in the film, three ME-262s were shot down by the 332nd.
Despite some of the historical shortcomings of the film, it is still a movie worth seeing, if only to give a picture of what the Tuskegee Airmen faced not only against the Luftwaffe, but also against the racial prejudices of their fellow countrymen. Red Tails is being released in conjunction with Double Victory, which aired on the History Channel and History H2 during the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.