By Charles Hallman
Red Tails isn’t the first movie about the all-Black U.S. combat unit who served in World War II, but it might be the best done thus far. The PG-13 film is scheduled for release January 20.
“It is a movie of courage and honor,” stated Charles Floyd Johnson, the film’s co-executive producer along with George Lucas, the famed producer of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. Johnson, whose works include NCIS, JAG, Magnum P.I. and The Rockford Files, added that it took Lucas nearly 20 years to make the film because he wanted to make sure that the Tuskegee Airmen story was told right.
“The reason why it took so long is that we had to get the script right. There were a couple of scripts that George didn’t like,” noted Johnson.
Lucas bankrolled the project with reportedly $58 million of his own money to produce Red Tails. “This movie is George Lucas’ passion,” Johnson added. “He cares about releasing the movie to make the most impact.”
A flight school was started at Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1941, two years after the U.S. government began establishing flight schools at colleges around the nation but not at any of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. “There were about 4,000 men who were in the unit. But only 100 were pilots,” Johnson pointed out.
Before the Tuskegee unit disbanded in 1946, the Black airmen flew over 15,000 sorties, completed over 1,500 missions during the war, and earned 150 distinguished medals.
Although it is a fictional account, Lucas’ film stayed true to the men’s historical wartime feats over foreign soil, said Johnson. William Archer was one of three airmen still living today who served as consultants on the film and was on location in the Czech Republic and Croatia where the film was shot. “They were very enthusiastic,” the co-executive producer said of the three airmen.
“Every day I would talk to them,” admitted Cuba Gooding, Jr., who plays Major Emanuel Stance in Red Tails. “There are so many questions… I just sit and ask them [questions]. We had some instances [during the filming] where you get so caught [up] in emotions. Their God-purpose was there in spirit.”
Oscar winner Gooding also appeared in the 1995 HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen. That role first exposed him to the Black pilots’ story, he added. “I constantly talk [about them].This is one thing of our heroic history that should be told.”
Their grace under fire and “the sacrifices they made” had a profound impact on him as well, noted Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, who plays Col. A.J. Bullard. “These men were determined to try to make a good name for their families and for themselves, and the result of it, we all are reaping the fruits of their labor [today].”
Howard and Gooding head a mostly all-Black cast, including the “200 or so” Black extras used in Red Tails, said Gooding. The two actors and Johnson talked about the film during a trailer screening and panel discussion last August at the National Association of Black Journalists annual convention in Philadelphia.
“There is a Black producer, a Black writer [Aaron McGruder] and a Black director [Anthony Hemingway] — we strived for that. There [also] are plenty of Black people behind the scenes,” Johnson said.
Gooding bragged about seeing “all [the] Black faces” on set, especially in Croatia, where an “abandoned Russian airbase…[was] converted…to an all Black airbase.”
McGruder, the creator of The Boondocks comic strip, co-wrote the screenplay with John Ridley. Hemingway’s previous directorial works include episodes of The Wire and True Blood (HBO); CSI: NY and CSI: Miami, and Criminal Minds (CBS); ER (NBC) and The Closer (TNT). Twice nominated for the NAACP Image Award, he also won a 2008 American Film Institute excellence award for his work on The Wire.
“This movie was the wealth of Black talent…from the first frame to the end of it,” believes Gooding. Red Tails’ cast also includes Nate Parker, Method Man, Tristan Wilds and Ne-Yo. Terence Blanchard produced the original music.
Big-budget all-Black-cast films are rare. As a result, Black audiences should support Red Tails to convince Hollywood execs that such films can be successful at the box office as well, suggested Howard. “If you love the film…tell people about it so that the next time we make a film that has primarily Black actors in it, we don’t get the door shut in our faces.”
Unless you have a 100-foot wide screen at home, you probably won’t fully appreciate the aerial scenes in Red Tails that literally jump off the screen. Compared to the HBO TV movie, which I also saw and enjoyed, Lucas’ special effects take the Tuskegee Airmen story to a gigantic new level.
I don’t usually watch war-themed movies, but Red Tails is much more than this: It’s worth standing in line to see it when it’s released.
“It will be a film that [people] will look back on… It is a great American story,” Howard said.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]