In fast-paced, action-packed sequences, Red Tails illustrates the story of young African-American servicemen, the Tuskegee Airmen, caught in two wars: one against Nazi Germany and the other against the racism of the country they were fighting for.
Starring Hollywood veterans Terrence Howard as Col. A.J. Bullard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Major Emanuel Stance, alongside rising stars Nate Parker as Martin “Easy” Julian and David Oyelowo as Joe “Lightning” Little, the movie shows in its opening image the air squadron flying what is supposed to be a relatively low-key patrol over a serene Italian countryside. Led by their unflappable flight leader, Easy, they try to maintain a sense of dignity despite being relegated to what is considered mop-up duty in a war where white servicemen were assigned the most honorable missions and were recognized as the only real heroes.
During the errand run, the Red Tails (the name referred to the color of the tails on their planes) come across a moving train that appears to be carrying civilian cargo, only to realize that it’s a heavily armed German convoy equipped with troops and artillery. Easy cautions the team to approach with prudence. But Lightning, the talented yet rebellious, hot-tempered pilot of the bunch, decides to engage the enemy in spite of Easy’s orders and wages a vaunted assault on the German train, a battle that puts the Tails at risk and leaves viewers on the edge of their seats.
Continually at odds throughout the film, Parker’s and Oyelowo’s characters represent dual characteristics often reflected in male characters on-screen: Easy’s conformity to the way things are versus Lightning’s defiance because of the way things should be. The film goes on to explore and reveal in bits and pieces the conflict between the two characters, which is woven into the burden they face trying to prove that they belong in what was a segregated and bigoted U.S. military.
The movie shifts through several more episodes of adversity, including Col. Bullard’s seemingly vain crusade to get his white superior, Col. William Mortamus, played by Bryan Cranston, to allow the Red Tails to fly real missions like the white squadrons.