Red Tails

Posted on January 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm

The official military documents of the 1940’s said that African-Americans were “mentally inferior” “subservient and cowards” and not fit to fly planes.  The Tuskegee Airmen of WWII proved that African-Americans were outstanding pilots.  They had to fight to be trained and they had to fight to be allowed to do combat missions, but once they were in the air they demonstrated skill, courage, and dedication that made their divisions one of the most highly decorated of the war.  For George Lucas, a long-time scholar of aerial combat, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen was a passion project.  When the studios told him that they would not finance an expensive movie with no white leading characters, he put up almost $100 million of his own money for a feature film and a documentary about one of the most inspiring stories of the 20th century.

It has the best of intentions, an excellent cast, and thrilling battle footage.  But the scenes on the ground are clunky.  It is in part because the filmmakers, with some justice, do not trust the audience to know very much about history, both of the second World War and of institutionalized racism, so they feel they have to explain everything.  But screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGregor (the “Boondocks” comic strip) make the dialog so expository-heavy it is a surprise the aircraft are not too weighed down by them to get off the ground.

Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard (both, by coincidence, playing Tuskegee Airmen for the second time) play officers inspired by real-life General Benjamin O. Davis.  Gooding plays Major Emanuelle Stance, the commanding officer of the Italian air base where the Tuskegee Airmen are waiting to be allowed to fly missions and Howard plays Colonel A. J. Bullard, who is in Washington advocating for his fliers to be given a chance.  The dignity and resolve Howard shows in meetings with a racist superior officer (“Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston) shine despite the awkward dialog.

So does the terrific cast of young actors including Nate Parker, Elijah Kelly, Method Man, Ne-Yo, and, as the daredevil every war movie has to have (think of him as a WWII Maverick from “Top Gun”), British actor David Oyelowo.  His nickname is “Lightning” and he’s the kind of guy who has to have one more swing around to hit one more target on the way home.  There is the usual conflict between the by-the-rules guy and the rules-are-made-t0-be-broken guy and a sweet romance with a local girl who speaks no English.  The script falters but the power of the real story, the sincerity and screen presence of the actors and the dedication and gallantry of the Tuskegee Airmen and the men who portray them make this a stirring tribute.

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Interview: Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Anthony Hemingway of ‘Red Tails’

Posted on January 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

Actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. and director Anthony Hemingway sat down with a small group of critics to talk about their new film, “Red Tails,” the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the highly decorated heroes who flew missions in the still-segregated Army of WWII.  It was the dream project for producer George Lucas.

This was Gooding’s second time playing a member of this legendary group. He appeared in the 1995 made-for-cable The Tuskegee Airmen.  “It’s like you’ve been researching the role for 12-15 years,” he said.  “The first one was more about their training and the racism and hardships and culminated with their first intro to the war effort and the first dogfight.  This was George Lucas’ passion project to display the warriorism and the heroism that are the Tuskegee Airmen in combat.  So this movie opens up during the war and we meet these guys after the’ve been in training for as many months as they will actually engage in combat.  This is the roller coaster ride.  Some of the footage in this movie, you feel like you’re in one of those P51 cockpits when they’re flying.  You feel like you’re being shot at by the German Messerschmitts.  It’s everything I wanted the first one to be!”

Director Anthony Hemingway talked about putting the actors through flight training.  “It was fun!  To actually experience that G-force.  You hear about it but you can’t really connect with it unless you go through it.  We did actually fly in a real P51.”  Gooding said he was inspired by classic WWII movies and by real-life heroes like General Benjamin O. Davis, the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen.  That still strength that he portrayed, the way he carried himself, was what I wanted to resonate with my character and echo and mirror.”

Hemingway said the movie is very relevant today because it relates to all struggles that people face.  “Seeing the obstacles that they overcame so brilliantly, the perseverance there, we can learn from that.”  “Selfless sacrifice is what these guys represented and dedication to our country over themselves is something our men and women overseas today can absolutely identify with,” added Gooding.  “I like to say this is my love letter to the armed forces, no matter what branch you’re in, no matter what race you are.”  “It’s our salute for their service,” said Hemingway.

They had just come from the White House.  “It was beautiful to see all these legacies coming together in one room,” Hemingway said.  “A handful of the real airmen who flew in combat, our first black President, George Lucas. Honestly, it was a beautiful experience.  We sat in the family theater in the White House and screened my first film.  And we were in Houston and George and Barbara Bush were there and she walked out bawling because she was so moved by the film. They’ve asked to be able to show it to George W. and his family.”  They were just as thrilled at a big premiere at the Zeigfeld theater when an elderly woman came over to introduce herself as a Tuskegee Airman.  She was Nancy Colon, a nurse.  “It was an all-black airbase in the segregated military so every face there was black.”

Gooding said that when he heard about the project he insisted on meeting with producer George Lucas to demonstrate his passion for the project and joked that he would be willing do do anything, even the catering for the set.  Lucas warned him it would be a tough shoot, down and dirty.  “I’m in!” was Gooding’s response.

I asked Hemingway about how he as a director worked to allow the acting of the combat scenes come through when the characters had their faces obscured by oxygen masks.  “We took a little creative license.  There are four or five action sequences in the film and in the first two I took the liberty of not using the masks to enable you to connect with the characters.  Once we got there, if you didn’t know who the characters were, we failed.  By then you could identify them by voice and in the casting of it, knowing from the beginning that their faces would be covered, we worked to make sure that the palette of the cast, the hues of their faces would help you easily stay connected to the story.”

Hemingway told us with tears in his eyes of the privilege he felt to present the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.  He did a great deal of research at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, were huge amounts of information and resources had been assembled for him, but he also went to Tuskegee to “walk in their footsteps” and see where the men had trained and where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made her famous visit to fly with one of the Tuskegee-trained pilots.

They spoke about what it meant to them to have four of the real Tuskegee Airmen on the set with them every day, sharing their stories and providing support and guidance.  Gooding said it meant a lot to him to see the real heroes inspiring the young actors who were playing them.  “The first real wow for me was when I would sleep in the car on the way to the set because we would start shooting at 5 am to get the light.  I would wake up and we would be on this airbase, back in time.”  Hemingway said that one of the Airmen, the late Lee Archer, lifted up his cane to point at the aircraft and said, “Get rid of all you civilians and I’ll be back in the air.”  He got choked up telling Hemingway that when he was growing up everyone said they couldn’t do it.  “To see the story being told meant so much to him.”

They spoke about the commitment George Lucas had to the story, putting up his own money for the feature film and for a documentary narrated by Gooding called “Double Victory.”  “One of the first things Lucas told me was, ‘You focus on the story, the shooting, the acting, the I got your back on the flying.'” He’s been studying the dogfights for years and I was confident knowing the support was there.

Gooding said, “Come see the movie because it’s action/adventure and a statement and an American tale.  President Obama stood in front of the screen, and we were all so emotional, and he said, ‘This is an American tale of heroism.’  That’s why people should come to this movie.”

 

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Red Tails Interviews: Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo, and a Real-Life Tuskegee Airman

Posted on January 18, 2012 at 8:00 am

Dr. Roscoe Brown, who flew planes as one of the heroic WWII Tuskegee Airmen, a black man defending a country still cruelly segregated, fighting in one of the most honored military divisions in American history, saw a film made about their heroic missions and last week attended the White House to meet with the first black President and First Lady of the United States.  It is called “Red Tails” after the distinctive color painted on their planes.  Dr. Brown, who turns 90 this year, earned a PhD, taught at NYU for 27 years, then became president of Bronx Community College, a part of the City University of New York (CUNY).  Dr. Brown and three other Tuskegee Airmen were on the set throughout the filming of “Red Tails” to provide guidance and ensure authenticity.  With three other critics, I spoke to Dr. Brown, director Anthony Hemingway, and actors Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, and David Oyelowo about the film.  We loved meeting the actors, but speaking to Dr. Brown was one of the thrills of a lifetime.

“We were young people, 19, 20, 21, 22-years old,” Dr. Brown told us. “Everybody was in the military at that time.  There were 15 million people in the military, 5 million blacks.  So it was something you did.  You knew you had to do it.  You wanted to defend the country.  And we felt as African-Americans, that if we did well, the larger society would recognize the stupidity of segregation and de-segregate.  Which in fact happened when President Truman signed the executive order in 1948 de-segregating the military, six years ahead of the desegregation of the schools with the Brown decision.  It was something that we had to do but something we wanted to do — particularly in the case of aviation because they said blacks could not do it.  Whenever someone says you can’t do something, you want to do it!  So we said, ‘Let’s be the best we can be.’ And that’s what this film portrays.”  He worked for more than 30 years to try to get a movie made about the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, originally with the late director Gordon Parks.  When George Lucas got involved, he brought them out to the Skywalker Ranch, where he had assembled extensive research.  “We sat down in the room and talked to them about how we actually flew, how we used the stick, where we looked, how small the cockpits were — no Tuskegee Airmen were 6’5″ because you had to be small to fit in the cockpit.”  It was important to him to honor those who flew, those who supported them on the ground, and those who did not come home.  He spoke about the difficulty of losing someone one day and having to get up the next day, put that out of his head, and go up again and focus on the target.  And he spoke about what he thought was the real message of the film: “It’s cool to be smart.”

He told us a harrowing story about the time he flew so close to a train he knocked part of the wing off and he was too low to bail out.  He thought he had been hit by anti-aircraft but when they got back the ground crew pulled a piece of the train out of his wing.

The actors told us how much it meant to them to spend time with the real Tuskegee Airmen and bring their story to life.  British actor David Oyelowo plays a brilliant but impulsive pilot with the call sign “Lightning.”  “One of the greatest inspirations for me was getting to hang out with Dr. Roscoe Brown and the other Tuskegee Airmen.  You look in their eyes and you see that glint, that can-do, that audacity that it had to have taken for them to do what they did.  And George Lucas gave us a mandate when he effectively godfathered the movie.  He told us, ‘We want to make a film about heroes, not victims.’  The fighter pilots are the glamor boys of any war.”  He described his character as “someone who can unashamedly say, ‘I’m the best damn pilot in the whole army!’ That was my mandate for playing the character, really.  “So many of the incredible things in the film, blowing up the battleship and the train, these are based on things that actually happened.  When we talked to the real guys, it was like ‘Push it!  We did more!'”  I asked about the challenge of playing a character with so much of the face covered by the oxygen mask.  “That was a frustration. One of the gratifying things was finding out that it was a frustration for you guys,” he said, turning to Dr. Brown.  “They didn’t particularly like these masks, either.  At one point I hint at that, ripping it away from my face.  I remember talking to you and you’d say they’d get sweaty and slip.  They were an encumbrance.  But that’s the job of the actor.  That was one challenge.  Another was that we didn’t have these hundreds of planes all around us.  We had to imagine that in this very controlled environment.  It was a great acting exercise because it did that thing you really want as an actor, to have your imagination very active.”

Terrence Howard spoke about having to respond to the racist comments made by a superior officer (“Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston) within the context of a military chain of command and as a man of the 1940’s whose entire life had been spent under segregation.  “I learned something very early on.  My brother said to me, ‘How do you think God views you?  Does he view you as who you are today or as who you will be once His son’s blood has been poured in your behalf and you’ve had time to gain that?’  I think Colonel Bullard, who was the cinematic example of a man named Colonel Ben Davis, who went to West Point.  No one spoke to him for four years.  He saw them as making mistakes and immature and un-evolved in their understanding of human relationships and abilities.  And so he was always able to look at the better side of people. What was beautiful, is that Cuba and I, after battling against each other in films or trying to get the same role, we actually split Benjamin Davis into two and Cuba was Benjamin on the base and I was Benjamin in Washington.”  He studied the military people of today to learn how they conduct themselves.  “It’s protocol.  It’s respect.  You see the standard and how people hold themselves, the comportment and that is passed on to you.”

They talked to us about what it was like to bring their movie to the White House.  “President Obama was so cool,” said Oyelowo. “And there we were, with some of the Tuskegee Airmen, and the actors, in these rooms so laden with history, good and bad. And then having this untold story of these unsung heroes presented by the first African-American President.  There was just something so right about it, and everyone was acknowledging it.  It felt like a moment, the moment that the blood and DNA of Martin Luther King, of the Tuskegee Airmen, of Obama’s legacy is in that as well.  On these press tours, we all have our photographs taken and we all pose with our best sexy smile.  But yesterday, we were all just like this,” he said with a look of dazed bliss.  He said he felt like a superhero when he saw himself in the uniform, and told us how much he loved looking through the photographs of the Tuskegee Airmen because their spirit and confidence were so evident in their poses and expressions.

They all emphasized that the story is universal.  “It so far surpasses any limitation associated with the hue of any one’s skin color,” said Howard.  “Every member of the family can appreciate the contribution that these men made, and the heroics of youth. They didn’t go to school to become pilots.  They went to school to become lawyers and doctors.  But when the call to duty came, they lent themselves.  They showed excellence.  They became the greatest pilots of all time.  And now every human being on the planet can appreciate it because what one human being does shows us what all of us are capable of.  When we see that excellence, we all share in it.” He spoke of how touched George Lucas was to come out of an early screening and see two white children pretending to be the pilots they had seen in the film.

They spoke about the parallels between the challenges faced by the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940’s and the challenges still faced by black actors today when the subject came up of George Lucas’ difficulties in getting financing for the film.  The actors were honored by the opportunity to tell the story and grateful that the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen created an opportunity for them to do what they love to do.

“I was told by my great-great-grandfather that limitation brings about genius,” Howard said. “When you have limited resources, limited opportunity, and a limited period of time to accomplish something, that’s when the human spirit shines.  It has been a difficult struggle but it has made me a much better actor.  The Tuskegee Airmen were not initially wanted.  They were not allowed to fly so for the first year and a half or two years they had a ton of time to practice and become perfect.  By the time they were able to participate they were all seasoned pilots.  That’s what happens to the black community of actors. Because we don’t have as many opportunities to play, we play amongst ourselves and get so much stronger, with so much more spirit. None of the other films I’ve done got a screening at the White House,” Howard said.  “It was a long time coming and I am glad we were able to participate in it.  For me, there’s a scripture in Isaiah, where he says, ‘Ten Gentiles will grab the skirt of a Jew and get into the Promised Land.’ I feel like forever David’s any my legacy will be attached to the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.  We will always be the face and the voice for their accomplishments.”  Oyelowo said, “For me, it means a lot to be part of a large black cast where we’re the center of our own story and its being done on such an epic scale.  I hope we can blow out of the water the idea that there can only be one — who’s the next Denzel?  Who’s the next Poitier?  There’s a lot of talent out there who are worthy of being given an opportunity. Like the Red Tails, we’re not looking to just do this movie and be a footnote.  They went on to do extraordinary things.  My hope and prayer is that we get to take advantage of this opportunity we’ve been afforded.”

“It’s a great story.  All the actors were fantastic, replicating what we did,” Dr. Brown said with pride.  I teased him, “And you were all that handsome, right?”  “We were better looking!”  That’s the Tuskegee Airmen spirit!

“As an African-American who has always been on the forefront of trying to break barriers,” Dr. Brown said, “this was another barrier to break.  Hopefully everyone on America will identify with the movie, will identify with the fact that excellence overcomes prejudice, overcomes obstacles.  And if we did it 65 years ago, the young people today of all backgrounds can do it now.”

 

 

 

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‘Red Tails’ — The Real Story of the Tuskegee Airmen

Posted on January 15, 2012 at 8:00 am

George Lucas wrote the story for this month’s release, “Red Tails,” about the heroic WWII fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.  It will be in theaters on January 20.

The American armed forces were not integrated until 1948, so throughout WWII they were still segregated.  The 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps, informally known as the Tuskegee Airmen, were the first African-American military aviators.  The historically black Tuskegee Institute initiated a flight training program.  When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited for an inspection and was taken for a ride by one of the instructors, it brought some visibility and support to the program and the work of civil rights pioneers like the NAACP’s Walter White and labor leader A. Philip Randolph led to the passage of legislation specifically allocating funds to train African-American pilots.

The pilots and support crew of the Tuskegee Airmen had an extraordinary record of skill and heroism.

According to Wikipedia:

In all, 996 pilots were trained in Tuskegee from 1941 to 1946, approximately 445 were deployed overseas, and 150 Airmen lost their lives in accidents or combat. The casualty toll included 66 pilots killed in action or accidents, and 32 fallen into captivity as prisoners of war.

The Tuskegee Airmen were credited by higher commands with the following accomplishments:

  • 15,533 combat sorties, 1578 missions
  • One hundred and twelve German aircraft destroyed in the air, another 150 on the ground
  • Nine hundred and fifty railcars, trucks and other motor vehicles destroyed
  • One destroyer sunk by P-47 machine gun fire
  • A good record of protecting U.S. bombers, losing only 25 on hundreds of missions.

Awards and decorations awarded for valor and performance included:

  • Three Distinguished Unit Citations
    • 99th Pursuit Squadron: 30 May–11 June 1943 for the capture of Pantelleria, Italy
    • 99th Fighter Squadron: 12–14 May 1944: for successful air strikes against Monte Cassino, Italy
    • 332d Fighter Group: 24 March 1945: for the longest bomber escort mission of World War II
  • At least one Silver Star
  • An estimated one hundred and fifty Distinguished Flying Crosses
  • Fourteen Bronze Stars
  • Seven hundred and forty-four Air Medals
  • Eight Purple Hearts

An excellent made-for-television film, The Tuskegee Airmen, starred Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding, Jr., who appears in this film.  “Red Tails” also stars Terrence Howard, who played a downed Tuskegee airman taken prisoner in “Hart’s War.”  There is  a PBS documentary, The Tuskegee Airmen, with the pilots and crew of the 332nd and those who are working to tell their story and restore one of their planes.

There are also many books, including The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History: 1939-1949 and the oral history Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II and the children’s book, Tuskegee Airmen: American Heroes.

More “The Real Story” posts:

We Bought a Zoo

Unstoppable

Soul Surfer

Sanctum

 

 

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