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.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of sheer bravery and humanity, yet it's a narrative that almost never has been told because of Hollywood's unwillingness to promote big-budget black films with a predominantly black cast. Lucas began developing the movie in 1988 and tried to produce it in 1992. But it wasn't until nearly two decades later, after almost all of the established production companies passed on the project, that he decided to fund it himself and turn the film into a reality.
"I wanted to make an inspirational for teenage boys," said Lucas during an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. "I wanted to show that they have heroes and, you know, it's not Glory, where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. They were real heroes."
Lucas' toil to finally get Red Tails onto the big screen serves as a symbolic echo to the central theme of the movie, which ultimately is about faith, determination and brotherhood.
Opening nationwide on Jan. 20, Lucas' cinematic version of the Tuskegee Airmen's real-life experiences is but a CliffsNotes version of the real thing. But hopefully, the film will pry open the channels of discourse that will empower more African Americans' stories to be told in ways that aren't diminishing or compromising.
As with the journeys of all other black soldiers before them in all of the wars in which America has been a part, the harrowing story of the Red Tails is about African Americans overcoming injustice by upholding democracy, despite their realities as second-class citizens in America.
They were heroes not because they were finally recognized with Medals of Honor decades after they sacrificed their lives for America but because they prevailed over an enemy both in the sky and on land at home. But through it all, as Parker's character aptly shouts before the film's final battle: "From the last plane, to the last bullet, to the last man, we fight."
And they won every time.
Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who writes about race, sports and politics. Follow him on Twitter.