The January 20 release of George Lucas’ epic Red Tails promises to bring the oft-told tale of the Tuskegee Airmen to a broad general audience for the first time. But given Lucas’ penchant for special-effects extravaganzas, don’t expect the film to serve as a history lesson. The director of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises admitted as much by billing his film as “inspired by true events.”
As Stephan Wilkinson points out in “Tuskegee Top Guns” (in the March issue), the story of the 332nd Fighter Group’s black pilots is familiar to most everyone even remotely acquainted with the WWII air war. Wilkinson examines a far less well-known chapter in the Tuskegee saga, after the 332nd’s reactivation in 1947. He tells the largely forgotten story of a Tuskegee Airmen team that took top honors in the piston-aircraft class at the U.S. Air Force’s 1949 fighter weapons meet, only to have their first-place trophy disappear for nearly 50 years.
The history of how the Tuskegee Airmen overcame prejudice and adversity to earn the right to fight for their country needs no embellishment—the facts alone are compelling enough. Yet over time their exploits have achieved legendary status, a prime example being the myth that they never lost a bomber they escorted. Lucas himself, not surprisingly, engaged in a bit of hyperbole in the run-up to his film’s release, saying the Tuskegee Airmen “became the best of the best—the top guns.” Surviving members of other Fifteenth and Eighth air force fighter groups might be forgiven for taking strong issue with that statement, and the 332nd veterans themselves undoubtedly view their accomplishments in a far more humble light.
Judging from Red Tails trailers, there will be no shortage of eye-popping air combat action in the film. Fighters and bombers go down in flames, locomotives and ships explode, Me-262 jets dogfight and do barrel rolls (really?)—all rendered in CGI glory as never before. “The Tuskegee Airmen were such superb pilots,” gushed Lucas, “that it was essential for us to create visual effects that would live up to their heroism and put audiences in the cockpit with them.”
Perhaps recognizing that he couldn’t do the real-life Tuskegee story justice in the scope of a major motion picture, Lucas created a documentary companion to it titled Double Victory (a reference to the black aviators’ dual triumph over fascism and racism). Narrated by Red Tails star Cuba Gooding Jr., it uses archival footage and interviews with Tuskegee survivors to put their accomplishments in proper historical perspective. Among the incidents it recounts is the sad saga of the 1945 Freeman Field Mutiny, in which African-American officers of the 477th Bomb Group attempted to integrate an all-white officers’ club at an air base in Indiana, only to be arrested for their efforts.
So grab the kids or grandkids, buy a tub of popcorn and enjoy a matinee of Red Tails, but don’t expect hard history. You can get that from Double Victory, slated for television release and inevitably as a DVD extra. Or better yet, consult the Tuskegee-related articles that have appeared in this magazine or on our newly redesigned main website, www.historynet.com. ("Interview With Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee")