Red Tails

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A 2012 Action Drama film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard, based on the exploits of the Tuskeegee Airmen, an all-black squadron of American fighter pilots in World War II. This is the first feature film to be produced by Lucasfilm since 2008.

Tropes used in Red Tails include:
  • Abandon Ship: Of the aviation variety. Various aircraft end up badly damaged, requiring their crews to bail out.
    • Played straight a few times, notably with one pilot who escapes his burning plane simply by jettisoning the canopy, unbuckling from his seat, and rolling the plane onto his back, which neatly drops him out of the plane so he can trigger his parachute. This technique is truth in television but particularly applies to the British Spitfire, whose cockpit was so narrow (thanks to the need for streamlining) that climbing out quickly was difficult.
    • Subverted a few times as well. One bomber is badly damaged, and the pilot orders the crew to bail out. The plane is promptly blown apart by a German fighter. On another occasion, a pilot is too weak from his injuries to bail out, and is forced to attempt to land. He crashes, but survives.
  • Ace Pilots: How else do you describe pilots who shoot down jet fighters with propeller planes?
  • The Alcoholic: Easy relies on drink to get himself through the war. His friend Lightning tries to get him to stop. He doesn't.
  • Batman Gambit: Pretty Boy's squadron uses decoy planes to draw American fighters off so they can pick off the bombers easily. This works on the all-white escort group in the opening sequence, who were trained to go for as many kills as they can, but it fails to entice the Red Tails, who know they'll never fly escort duty again if they don't stay on-mission and get the bombers home safely.
  • Book Ends: The first and last combat missions we see the Red Tails flying on end with Lightning attacking the target head-on.
  • Calling Your Attacks: An odd example, with two pilots predicting how many German planes they can destroy on each pass. Junior gets hit by a flak gun after declaring that he can get four at once.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Easy.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Averted with Raygun's, well, raygun.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Lightning learns a maneuver from Pretty Boy that he puts to good use in combat later.
  • Coming in Hot: Easy and Deke, complete with "Stay on my wing"-based dialogue. Pretty Boy, who is forced to do a belly landing at full speed in his crippled Me-109 because he is being chased by four American pilots.
  • Composite Characters: The main cast are composites of real Tuskegee Airmen from information gathered mostly from research and interviews of still-living former members of the squadron, and some of the real life victories are shown as being performed by the fictional characters.
  • Cool Plane: The film features Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, North American P-51D Mustangs, Messerschmidt Me-109s, and the first combat jet in history, the Me-262 Schwalbe. For the bomber fans, there's also Boeing B-17Gs aplenty. The P-40s were hand-me-downs, pretty well beat up by the time the Tuskegee Airmen got to them, more like Alleged Planes. That said, this would have been more to do with the condition and age of the planes, rather than their design: The P-40 Warhawk was a very successful aircraft when employed in its own niche: Low and mid-altitude aerial combat and ground attack.
  • Cool Versus Awesome: P-51D Mustangs dogfighting against much faster and more heavily armed Me-262 Schwalbes. Fortunately, one of the American pilots quickly deduces that while the 262s can fly fast, they can't turn much at all, and respond by spraying machine gun fire in front of the jets, which are unable to evade before flying obligingly into the stream of fire.
    • Truth in Television: While 262s could leave the P-51 in the dust in terms of sheer speed in the air, the 51 could turn on a dime while the Me-262 required a long arc in order to execute the same turn. On the rare occasion where a 262 squadron would actually stick around and dogfight(for the most part, they would simply dive through bomber formations and take out as many as they could, never dogfight), P-51 pilots would follow the 262s into their dives, where the 51's superior maneuverability would actually allow them to outrun the 262 and thus give them the upper hand. The other tactic was seen in the movie: outmaneuver the 262 and lead them with a spray of bullets.
  • Curb Stomp Battle: The Red Tails' first front-line engagement results in 8 enemy planes shot down and 63 enemy planes destroyed on the ground for none of their own shot down (although damage is taken).
  • Dare to Be Badass:

Major Emanuelle Stance: Pick your head up. You're fighter pilots.

  • Death From Above: The Red Tails find themselves doing this a lot. At first, settling for trucks and trains because the higher ups refuse to station them somewhere where they will find any German aircraft to shoot at. Later on, they inflict heavy damage upon a German airfield and a destroyer as targets of opportunity. The P-51s were slower than the German jets, but if they climbed and then dove, they could fly faster. This is shown in the film.
  • Desk Jockey: Major Stance and Colonel Bullard, what with them running the squadron's operations and dealing with the higher-ups.
  • Do a Barrel Roll: Inevitable. The rolls they performed above the base after a successful mission were "victory rolls." Victory Rolls is the title of one background music track on the soundtrack. And then there was the tight loop that Pretty Boy used against Lightning, and that Lightning later used against a Luftwaffe mook in the final battle.
  • Development Hell: George Lucas originally developed the idea in 1988, with a scheduled release for 1992. A number of writers worked on the project until John Ridley was hired in 2007 to write the final screenplay, which was then subsequently revised by Aaron McGruder. If what Lucas said on The Daily Show is true, another reason it took long to produce was because Hollywood executives did not think a movie with a mostly black cast would be successful or make money.
  • Dies Wide Open: Lightning, in the film's climax.
  • Divine Race Lift: Deke always makes sure to pray to "Black Jesus."
    • Ironic Echo: "Help me Jesus!" when he's really in trouble.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: One of the aerial gunners on the American bombers early in the film gets one of these in on his .50 caliber machine gun in the film's intro, this primarily serves to show the defenders' grim determination, despite how badly stacked the battle is against them.
  • The Engineer: Coffee and his crew chiefs are the vehicular variety, constantly berating Lightning for damaging their planes. Coffee claims that he used to be a very cheerful man until he met Lightning.
  • Faceless Goons: The only German pilot's face you see is "Pretty Boy," the main antagonist, who never seems to wear his goggles. Could also be Helmets Are Hardly Heroic.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Lightning's photo of Sofia. Averted with Junior. It's only after the heroes find out that He Didn't Make It that it is mentioned that he had a wife and two kids.
  • Faux Symbolism: The Black Jesus picture being recovered from Deacon's burning plane.
  • Five-Man Band
  • Foreign Cuss Word: A German pilot yells "Scheiss!!" as he is shot down.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Deacon is badly wounded, and ends up soaked in gasoline due to a punctured fuel tank, in one mission. It doesn't take much imagination to foresee how this will end for him. His plane crash-lands, and bursts into flames. He is pulled out and survives, however.
    • A bomber officer warns the fighter pilots about the new jet fighters the Germans are beginning to field late in the movie.
  • Functional Addict: He never gets heavily drunk, and it's unclear if anything particularly bad ever comes of it. That said, because of the revelation that he has been Drinking on Duty, many of his choices are called into question by Lightning and Easy himself.
  • George Lucas Throwback: To the straightforward, patriotic war movies of the 1940s and 1950s, which the Tuskegee pilots didn't actually get back then because of their race.
  • He Didn't Make It: Junior, according to an escaped prisoner of war. Subverted, in that Junior manages to survive and escape on his own.
  • Helmets Are Hardly Heroic: Played Straight at the beginning to give the audience a chance to get to know the pilots, then Averted after the switch from P-40 Warhawks to P-51 Mustangs.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: A racist officer in Washington, Colonel Mortamus, leaks a report critical of the Tuskegee Airmen's lack of success to the press, hoping to erode support for it. Instead, it is pointed out that doing so could be considered a major security leak, and the Army is forced to save face by reassigning the unit to a sector where they can actually contribute to the war (the reason for their lack of success being that they were assigned to fly in sectors where the Germans hadn't been spotted).
  • Hot-Blooded: Lightning, gets chewed out for it after starting a bar fight.
  • Huddle Power: "Nothing's difficult! Everything's a challenge! Through adversity to the stars! From the last plane to the last bullet to the last minute to the last man we fight! We fight!"
  • In-Series Nickname: Easy, Lightning, Joker, Smoky, Ray Gun/Junior, Deke, Coffee
  • Iconic Item: Deacon's "Black Jesus" picture, Junior's toy Ray Gun, Stance's pipe, and Easy's pocket flask.
  • Jackie Robinson Story: Obviously, since this is story how a group of African American pilots overcame racist opposition from within their own army's ranks to prove they were at least, and often times more than, equal to any white pilot.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Relatively minor case: The squadron is shown transitioning to P-51D Mustangs, when in Real Life, they had transitioned to the rather less iconic P-51C model. The most visible difference being the P-51C having a more traditional canopy rather than the D model's "Bubble" canopy.
    • Not to mention that in between the P-40 Warhawks and the P-51 Mustangs, they also flew Bell P-39 Aircobras and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, neither of which had the same degree of fame as the Mustangs.
  • Language of Love: Lightning/Sofia
  • Live Action Escort Mission: The Red Tails' preferred modus operandi.
  • Mid-Season Upgrade: The Red Tails trade in their beat up Curtiss P-40 Warhawks for brand shiny new North American P-51D Mustangs.
    • Pretty Boy and his squadron trade up from their Messerschmidt Me-109s for Me-262s, the first operational jet fighters in history.
  • Mildly Military: Hot-Blooded Lightning, who can't avoid disobeying orders and getting into brawls. The only thing keeping Colonel Bullard from kicking him out is the fact that he has the most raw flying talent of anyone in the squadron.
  • Mood Whiplash: Lightning's solemn funeral is interrupted by Junior returning and making a very bombastic entrance.
  • More Dakka: The American fighters mount six .50 cal machine guns each. The German fighters carry 20 millimeter cannons amongst their loadout.
  • Morton's Fork: What the pilots of the 332d face at the start of the film: The higher ups refuse to accept that black pilots are fit for air combat until they have achieved some air to air victories against the Germans, and they refuse to assign them anywhere they will run into the Luftwaffe until they can prove themselves fit for air combat.
  • Mutual Kill: Lightning and Pretty Boy.
  • Nobody Ever Complained Before: Evidently, it never occurred to at least one member of the white bomber crews that black people took offense to the expression "Colored People."
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Colonel Bullard is mostly a stand-in for the Real Life commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
  • Nose Art:
    • The Tuskegee Airmen's trademark red-tailed paintjobs.
      • Also, their unique nickname-based logos, like Easy's lounging figure.
      • Amusingly, Junior's logo indicates that his name is "Ray Gun", despite the fact that everyone refuses to call him that.
    • The Germans fly grey planes with black specks.
    • A more subtle example, both the B-17s and the P-40s at the beginning of the film bear the drab olive-green paint scheme common of US Army Air Forces aircraft for much of the war. Towards the end, the Americans have all transitioned to the striking (and very shiny) bare metal paint jobs used by the Army Air Forces towards the end.
  • N-Word Privileges: Discussed at length, and eventually Played for Laughs.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: A joint vehicular and human version when Lightning's plane goes head to head with an M-262 jet fighter. M262s were armed with 4 × 30 mm MK 108 cannons which are exploding rounds; Lightning and his plane are hit several times and should have been obliterated instantly with that kind of firepower. He dies and crashes soon after, however.
  • Operation: Blank: Operation Shingle, providing air cover for an amphibious assault in Italy.
  • Point Defenseless: The anti-aircraft guns at the German airfield, aboard the destroyer, and in the American bombers are pretty much useless in this movie.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Major Stance, and then Colonel Bullard once he returns from Washington.
  • Red Alert: The Luftwaffe airfield when Pretty Boy reports that he is Coming in Hot, pursued by four American fighter planes.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Easy is Blue to Lightning's Red
    • Interestingly, while Easy is much more level-headed (and higher-ranking), Lightning is much more often right about what tactics they should use, which is the cause of much of their tension.
  • Retirony: Lightning proposes to Sofia and keeps a picture of her in his cockpit. He dies in the very next mission.
  • Rousing Speech: By Major Stance and Colonel Bullard. The highpoints of each get quoted as the squadron's pre-flight Battle Cry during their Huddle Power moment later on.
  • Shown Their Work: The filmmakers went through great pains to make the movie accurate, going as far as interviewing the surviving members of the squadron, and even getting access to their journals. That over-the-top bit with one pilot disabling an Italian destroyer? It happened.
  • Sitting Duck: The German aircraft at the airfield that is treated to an impromptu air raid by Easy, Lightning, Joker, and Junior.
  • Sobriquet: Pretty Boy.
  • Standard Hollywood Strafing Procedure: Used to attack a German train at the start of the film. Lightning protests that it would be smarter (and safer) to attack the train head-on instead, due to the presence of Anti-Air gunners on the train.
  • Stereotype Flip: In an Ironic Echo to a previous scene, some of the black pilots are walking past the Officers' Club, where Lightning had previously gotten into a brawl with a large group of racist white officers. A very redneck sounding pilot walks out and shouts at them, seemingly trying to taunt them. He's a grateful bomber pilot wanting to share a drink with the men who saved his crew.
    • Later, a German guard is shown gleefully introducing a POW barracks full of grumpy white officers to their new room mate, very black, and very alone Junior. As soon as the guard leaves, Junior learns that the men there are grateful to have him, because he couldn't possibly be a Nazi spy. And they want him to have a part in their escape.
  • Stuff Blowing Up
  • Token Minority: Inverted. One of Colonel Bullard's closest allies in Washington is a white Colonel who fights tenaciously to maintain support for the unit.
  • Token Religious Teammate: Deacon
  • War Is Hell: Played straight in the film's prologue, showing a formation of bombers being torn to shreds by the Luftwaffe fighters.
    • And Subverted in the very next scene, with four of the 332d Fighter Group pilots cruising along on another boring patrol.

Lightning: War is hell, but what we're doing is boring as hell.

  • We Have Reserves: Escort pilots are explicitly encouraged to think of themselves as this in relation to bombers. The commander of the bomber forces comes to Bullard looking for escort pilots who'll put the bombers over themselves, and Bullard tells his men "At all costs, protect the heavies."
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Easy
  • What Could Have Been: Lucas held discussions with Samuel L. Jackson regarding Jackson possibly directing and acting in the film. Although Jackson praised the script, he did not commit to either role.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Lightning towards Easy after he realizes that Easy has been flying while drunk.
    • And later on, Major Stance towards Easy for allowing himself to wallow in his self pity. He has to accept that not every choice he makes as a commander will be correct.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Lightning is implied to be quite the ladies' man while stationed in Italy. After the film's first battle, he spots a beautiful Italian woman hanging laundry as he flies overhead, and proceeds to seek her out on ground later.
    • Actually a subversion, as his skin color has surprisingly little effect on how their relationship develops, and even her mother doesn't seem dismayed by it.
  • With Due Respect: Between Colonel Bullard and Colonel Mortamus. Pretty much the only thing keeping either officer from telling the other what they really think about each other.
  • X Meets Y: HBO's The Tuskegee Airmen meets Pearl Harbor.
  • Yanks With Tanks: We briefly see ships of the US Navy shelling a beach, with infantry from the Army landing ashore. Most of the film, obviously, centers on the US Army Air Forces, and in particular the 332d Fighter Group.