On the surface, "Red Tails" (2012) is a good movie in all the ways "Flyboys" (2006) was a good movie—aerial dogfights, the camaraderie that develops between men in combat, good acting, and a great, relatively untold story—and in some other ways too.
Based on John B. Holway’s book, the movie tells part of the story of the Tuskegee Airmen serving in Europe and North Africa during World War II. It starts with an exploding train and turns on the 332nd Fighter Group’s success escorting heavy bombers on missions in Europe. But there’s so much to tell, and the scale of the story somewhat undoes the movie.
The characters feel like composites of real people, the plot like a composite of real events. At one point, a white pilot asks a group of black pilots what they prefer to be called, but these conversations are mostly collected one-liners and don’t develop much more than factual understanding of the Tuskegee Airmen, their stories, and the prejudices they faced.
It makes for a nice moment when a German pilot reacts to fighting African-American pilots, but it does little to challenge stereotypes. The movie mentions some political machinations behind the missions the 332nd received—or didn’t receive—but the arguments don’t delve much deeper than superficial bigotry and pragmatism.
Yet even it’s flaws contribute to the film’s greatest achievement. Though it doesn’t tell the whole story, Red Tails inspires curiosity about who these Tuskegee Airmen were—and are—and that’s something.