They were blocked at every turn by white military officers who didn't believe (or accept) that black men could fly combat missions.
That struggle was chronicled some years back in the HBO drama "The Tuskegee Airmen" (and in a new documentary recently broadcast on the History Channel).
"Red Tails" is not that movie. Producer George Lucas has defined it as an adventure movie for young people, the kind of gung-ho crowd-pleaser that might have been made about the airmen in 1945, but wasn't, because Hollywood wasn't ready to celebrate their achievements.
It's barely ready now - even a man as powerful as Lucas had to spend 23 years and $100 million of his own money to make and distribute "Red Tails."
Well, now it's here, and it's a wall-to-wall CGI combat movie with a few sketchy characterizations tossed in. Most of the acting is done in simulated cockpits.
Nate Parker plays a squadron leader plagued by internal demons, struggling to keep in line his hotshot, hot-tempered wingman (David Olelowo). Cuba Gooding Jr. (chomping on a pipe) is their immediate superior, Terrence Howard is the crusading major who lobbies Washington for better planes, better missions.
On the subject of better planes - "Red Tails" is an homage to great men, and maybe the greatest combat airplane ever built - the P-51 Mustang, outfitted with a Rolls-Royce engine. It was among the fastest prop fighters ever built, and the first fighter capable of escorting bombers all the way to Berlin and back, allowing daylight precision raids on German war production.
The Mustang was also beautiful, more so when emblazoned in red trim by the Tuskegee fliers, to loudly proclaim their presence in the sky, in the military, in history.
As for history, "Red Tails" is only a cursory lesson. Lucas has commissioned a very good 90-minute documentary, featuring surviving aviators, airing on the History Channel, along with an episode of "Dogfights" that re-creates P-51 encounters with verge-of-the-space-age German jets.
Produced by George Lucas, directed by Anthony Hemingway, written by John Ridley, Aaron MacGruder, music by Terrence Blanchard, distributed by 20th Century Fox.