By S. Jhoanna Robledo,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Wartime drama mixes aerial combat, worthy messages, cliches.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
The story has strong messages about equality, duty, loyalty, and friendship. The African-American pilots face prejudice at almost every level of the military, but those attitudes are shown to be small-minded and wrong, as the pilots' skill, bravery, teamwork, and dedication to duty finally win over even some of their most bitter detractors. Through sometimes-painful consequences, characters also learn lessons about following orders, believing in themselves, and putting honor above glory.
Positive Role Models
The Red Tails are daring and brave and eager to fight to defend their country, even though the military (and many Americans in general) see them as second-class citizens. Most of them suffer from some kind of flaw (lack of confidence, overconfidence, bad attitude, etc.), but their relationships with each other and their unit -- and their ability to finally prove themselves in battle -- help them learn from their mistakes. Some of the characters feel a bit stereotypical, but that's largely due to script weaknesses.
Violence & Scariness
Many intense aerial combat sequences as the pilots tangle with German fighters in the air and/or strafe targets on the ground (including trains, trucks, an airfield, and more). Lots of loud gunfire and big explosions, and several scenes feature injured pilots who are struggling to return to their base despite serious, often bloody injuries. Major characters are hurt in battle, and one is captured. Planes catch on fire and crash; early sequences show bomber crews taking severe losses (including close-ups of some dead soldiers' faces). The pilots also occasionally get into fistfights on the ground with each other or with other members of the military.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
A pilot courts an Italian woman who lives near their base; they exchange a few kisses, and one scene shows them waking up together (he's shirtless, and she's in lingerie).
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Language includes "s--t," "ass," "damn," "bitch," "bastard," "hell," "goddamn," and "crap." A white soldier insults a black pilot using the "N" word. "Negro" is used frequently, as it was a common way of referring to African Americans in the 1940s; "colored" is also used often but is seen as a more derogatory term.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
One character has a drinking problem that grows more serious throughout the film; he frequently sips out of a flask, often seeming desperate for a drink. One of the unit's commanding officers likes to smoke a pipe; cigars are also seen and smoked. Some scenes take place in bars where the soldiers drink to blow off steam.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Red Tails is a World War II action-drama inspired by the real-life Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter pilot squadron. Executive produced by George Lucas, the film has several intense aerial combat sequences (including loud gunfire, fiery explosions, bloody injuries, crashes, and deaths) and shows the racism the aviators encountered every day. It's stirring (if not exactly unpredictable) and patriotic and tells an important story with messages about bravery, duty, loyalty, and friendship. In addition to the many battle sequences, there's some swearing (including "s--t" and the "N" word) and drinking (one character battles a dependence on alcohol), as well as a relationship between one of the pilots and a local Italian girl.
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What's the Story?
Inspired by the real-life Tuskegee Airmen, RED TAILS follows an all-black fighter pilot squadron in World War II as they face off against German planes in the air and the entrenched racism of the mostly white U.S. military on the ground. Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. play the senior officers, but most of the story follows four pilots: responsible Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), who uses liquor to wash away the horrors of war and his own lack of confidence; cocky ladies' man Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo), the team's best pilot; eager Ray "Ray Gun" Gannon (Tristan Wilds), the youngest flier; and cutup Samuel "Joker" George (Elijah Kelley).
Is It Any Good?
Red Tails is best when the pilots are in the air. Most of the aerial combat sequences are exciting to watch (though some of the special effects could have used a little more polish). But the film sputters when the planes land. It's clear that the pilots encountered many obstacles from their own compatriots, but the film does a poor job of presenting their stories. The script is filled with preachy, eyerolling-inducing speeches about honor and duty, and cliched characters: the racist officer, the grumpy mechanic, the caricatured German rival, and many more.
How can material this rich go so wrong? The earnest, appealing cast does their best with what they have, but the story jumps from one point to the next without much coherence, and the tone frequently seems jarring; the pilots banter during combat sequences that should leave them shaken and seem to treat the war like an exciting game rather than a life-or-death experience. The Tuskegee Airmen deserve a better tribute than this.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the movie's messages. What do the characters learn about duty and confidence? Why is their story an important one? Are they all positive role models?
Talk about the film's historical context. Why were the pilots treated like inferiors? Why were so many people resistant to changing their minds about the pilots' abilities? How could you find out more about the Tuskegee Airmen?
Do you think the movie is historically accurate? Why might filmmakers choose to change details of the past when telling their story?
- In theaters: January 20, 2012
- On DVD or streaming: May 22, 2012
- Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo, Nate Parker
- Director: Anthony Hemingway
- Inclusion Information: Black directors, Black actors
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Friendship, Great Boy Role Models, History
- Run time: 125 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some sequences of war violence
- Last updated: February 27, 2023
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