Review: “The Real Red Tails” Feels Like A DVD Bonus Feature

The Real Red Tails is a new, hour-long special from National Geographic covering the Tuskegee airmen, a plane crash into the Great Lakes, and the underwater archaeologists working to recover the remains of the recently found place. Narrated by Sheryl Lee Ralph (with the perfect percussiveness), the special includes discussions with Tuskegee airmen and historians to add context to their plight and the importance of the sunken plane.

The Tuskegee airmen, pardon my word choice, are rad. They just are. To work against the rampant segregation of the United States, armed services and otherwise. As explicitly mentioned in the special, the black pilots constantly had to prove their worth throughout training and the war efforts. The groups of airmen have, luckily, become part of the cultural lexicon as time has continued forward, no longer becoming a quiet reality of the past. It begs the question: why isn’t there a definitive piece of media about the Tuskegee airmen?

As I watched this mosh pit of a documentary, I continually asked that question, since this wasn’t going to be taking up the mantle. The inherent problem with The Real Red Tails is that it’s two documentaries in one: a proper explanation of the Tuskegee airmen and an archaeological look at WWII. Over the course of the hour run-time, both sides of the coin flip back-and-forth with no real understanding as to why they are coexisting.

Context is helpful when discussing why a plane would be at the bottom of the Great Lakes to begin with, as I was unaware that training took place in Michigan to replicate the French coast. Yet, after that context is given, the film goes backwards and gives a thumbnail sketch of the Tuskegee airmen’s origins. Now, why does that matter in regards to how to excavate a plane?

The plane side of the documentary is all about bringing the plane up from the bottom of the waters and piecing together what was the cause of the plane’s crash in the first place. The answer is revealed, mind you, but with such a profound lack of pomp and circumstance that it leaves the viewer going “Why did we do all of this?”

A proper, ninety minute documentary on the Tuskegee airmen would be wonderful. The interviews with the veterans were interesting, especially alongside Ralph’s exquisite narration. The archaeological aspect feels like a DVD bonus feature, not something to help pad out a documentary. Mind you, the individuals invested in learning from the sunken plane are wonderful! Their commitment to keeping history alive is appreciated and warranted. However, it just doesn’t add up to a symbiotic relationship between both parts of this documentary. Maybe this can at least be proof we need more definitive Tuskegee airmen film and television?

The Real Red Tails premieres June 3rd at 8/7c on National Geographic. It streams June 4th on Disney+ and Hulu.

Marshal Knight
Marshal Knight is a pop culture writer based in Orlando, FL. For some inexplicable reason, his most recent birthday party was themed to daytime television. He’d like to thank Sandra Oh.