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'Servant heroes' take to the skies

The Tuskegee Airmen – the nickname given to the U.S. Air Force’s 332nd Fighter Group (and the 447th Bombardment Group, though the latter never served in combat) – were the first black military aviators in the United States armed forces.

Like racial barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson, the Tuskegee Airmen – also known as “Red Tails” for painting their planes’ tail sections red – earned begrudging respect for outstanding performance under fire.

Until careful historical inspection proved otherwise, it was believed for over 50 years that the Red Tails never lost a single bomber that their fighter planes escorted over enemy lines. Even though the claim was a bit of an exaggeration, the Tuskegee Airmen nonetheless piled up a peerless service record, with nearly 1,000 awards and decorations for valor and performance over nearly 1,600 missions in World War II.

And in a new film by legendary moviemaker George Lucas, the Tuskegee Airmen take to the skies again, portrayed very much like Robinson, as men whose character spoke as loudly as their accomplishments.

“Red Tails” joins the story of the airmen already in action in 1944 Italy. They’ve been flying behind-the-front-lines sorties, strafing supply lines in worn-out P-40s, while never facing a German plane.

Some in the group openly chafe over being assigned to “mop-up duty,” while others insist on fighting the war first, before fighting for racial equality. Notably, the film portrays the racial injustices and tension of the Red Tails’ tale without becoming a political statement that treats its agenda more important than the story.

The performances in the film are solid, though not particularly memorable. The characters are engaging and endearing. The aerial battles are exciting and yet easy to follow. On the whole, “Red Tails” isn’t a masterpiece, but it is entertaining and presents a positive message.

Where the film really excels, however, is in couching the excellence of the Red Tails in terms of their service: to the mission, to their country (despite its racism and flaws) and most especially, to their fellow airmen, regardless of the color of their skin.

Before the Red Tails began escorting bombers, the white fighter pilots in the film were easily distracted by German decoy planes, chasing after dogfights and glory, while a second team of Messerschmitts swooped in and shot down the American bombers.

When given their opportunity, however, the Red Tails in the film determined the mission – that is, the bombers – must be preserved, while dogfights and glory and shooting down the enemy must be set aside for the greater good. In this way, the Red Tails put themselves in greater danger, perhaps, but they did so to save and serve the bomber pilots.

“We count our victories,” the Red Tails’ leader declares, “by fathers we get back to their families, by husbands we get back their wives. … Forget the price; save the lives!”

The selfless service shown by the Red Tails – both in the movie and in real life – not only earned the Tuskegee Airmen the gratitude and respect of the bomber pilots, but also demonstrated the biblical principle of servant leadership … in this case, servant heroism.

“The greatest among you will be your servant,” Jesus said in Matthew 23:11-12. “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

In “Red Tails,” the Tuskegee Airmen are exalted.

In another scene, one of the Airmen escapes from a German gulag, only to voluntarily separate himself from his fellow white pilots in their trek across the countryside, knowing that if he travels with them, the color of his skin will endanger them all.

In yet another, the brash and flamboyant airman “Lightning,” though least inclined to humble service, nonetheless demonstrates the ultimate measure of servanthood in fulfilling Christ’s words, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

The end result is an entertaining film that both exalts true American heroes and exemplifies biblical principles.

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