Tuskegee Airmen Soar on Big Screen in 'Red Tails'

From "Sands of Iwo Jima" to "The Hurt Locker," there have been too many war movies to count.

But little screen time has been devoted to the Tuskegee Airmen, the pioneering World War II African-American aviators who fought a two-front battle: against the Germans overseas and against racism at home.

But starting Jan. 20, America will get to see a "Top Gun"-style version of the Tuskegee Airmen story in "Red Tails," a major action movie executive produced by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas and paid for with his own money.

"I think the movie should get maybe four or five Oscars, at least," said Arthur Green, president of the Detroit chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., who has seen an advance screening. A benefit showing this Saturday at the Renaissance Center is already sold out.

For the real-life Tuskegee Airmen, who are now in their mid-80s to mid-90s and include pilots, bombardiers, gunners, mechanics and support staff, "Red Tails" has a much bigger mission than entertaining or spreading the word of their valor.

Film a tribute to black pilots' place in history

For too long, the Tuskegee Airmen were an unknown chapter of World War II.

"We were being left out of history," said William Horton Thompson, 92, of Detroit. "We weren't necessarily talking about it. We were busy trying to make a living."

When Harry Stewart Jr., 87, of Bloomfield Township got back from the war and would mention black fighter pilots, he often got the same response. "People would look at me and basically say, 'Who were they?' "

The Tuskegee Airmen succeeded despite the attitude of the U.S. military, which was then segregated and had many commanders who didn't think African Americans should or could fly planes in combat.

Now, about 70 years late, these pioneering members of the greatest generation, who fought fascism overseas and racism at home, are getting the action-packed war movie they deserve.

"Red Tails," which opens Jan. 20, is as exciting and patriotic as "Captain America." Only it's inspired by the real deal, not a comic book character.

"To portray these modern-day heroes, these are superheroes," said "Red Tails" costar Elijah Kelley at a recent advance screening in Birmingham attended by several Tuskegee Airmen from Detroit.

"Red Tails" was financed by George Lucas, the visionary behind such iconic franchises as "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones."

Lucas has been on a 23-year journey to get the movie to the big screen. In a recent interview with USA TODAY, he talked about approaching a half-dozen major studio heads about a financial partnership, but they were concerned about the film's marketability. So he spent $58 million of his own money to make it.

Although the Tuskegee Airmen have a lengthy history that stretches back to a small program at the Tuskegee Institute, "Red Tails" focuses on the exploits of the 332nd Fighter Group based at the Ramitelli air base in Italy.

It follows the pilots as they escort bombers on vital missions in enemy territory, shoot down German aircraft and strafe targets such as trains and ships whenever possible. The movie's title comes from the distinctive red tails of their P51 Mustangs.

The movie has a mostly African-American cast: Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr. and a number of rising young actors play fictional versions of the pilots, mechanics and commanding officers of the 332nd. It's directed by Anthony Hemingway, whose credits include acclaimed TV series "Treme" and "The Wire," and is co-written by John Ridley ("Three Kings," "Undercover Brother") and "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder.

Unlike HBO's groundbreaking 1995 movie "The Tuskegee Airmen" starring Laurence Fishburne, which was more of an overall history, "Red Tails" offers the thrills of an old-fashioned action movie and the state-of-the-art special effects of 2012.

"Yes, it's a war movie, but this is like 'Avatar,' " said Gooding, who appeared in "The Tuskegee Airmen" and plays a pipe-smoking major in "Red Tails." "Visually, you really feel you're in these cockpits. Some of the dogfights in this movie really feel like the same thing that we had in 'Star Wars.' I think the only difference is that all of the actors in the cockpits are black, except for the Nazis, the Germans trying to shoot them out of the sky."

Like the rest of the cast, Gooding has been touring the country to spread the word about "Red Tails." On Friday, he's scheduled to attend a White House screening for President Barack Obama. A sold-out benefit screening Saturday in Detroit at the Renaissance Center will feature an appearance by actor Nate Parker, who has a major part as a pilot.

Detroit's big role

Detroit continues to play a big role in bringing the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to life for younger generations. The city is the home of the founding chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a national group that holds an annual convention.

The Tuskegee Airmen in metro Detroit have vivid memories of their training and time overseas. Washington D. Ross, 92, of Southfield, who was at Ramitelli and flew 63 combat missions in less than a year, said white pilots were, at first, surprised to find out that there were black pilots.

"There was a storm coming, and some of them had to land on our strip and were there for about two or three days," Ross remembered. "When they called for breakfast, some of them said, 'We're not going to eat at their mess.' So the others said, 'Well, you stay then because we're going to eat.' The cooks did themselves proud."

Eventually, Ross said, white pilots would ask for members of the 332nd to be their escorts because of their excellent record of providing protection.

Instead of a hero's welcome after the war, the Tuskegee Airmen met the same discrimination they faced before it. Stewart, who also was at Ramitelli, flew 43 combat missions and later was part of the winning team at a 1949 Air Force gunnery meet, was turned down when he applied to two airlines. One rejected him without explanation. The other offered a reason through one of its employment officers. "He said, 'Well, can you imagine the confidence of the people in the airplane if they should see you walking down the aisle?' "

Stewart went on to become a top executive at ANR Pipeline.

Detroit chapter members such as Thompson, Ross and Richard Jennings are among those responsible for the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum at Historic Ft. Wayne, a location secured with the help of a famous member: former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

Now in their mid-80s to mid-90s, the Tuskegee Airmen don't trumpet their own accomplishments. Thompson, who came down with dysentery after his first solo flight, which effectively ended his chances of going overseas, explained that the men didn't talk much about their individual efforts.

"I know a fellow that I was very close to and I didn't know until his funeral that he had been a cadet down there (in Tuskegee, Ala.). So that shows you how much you talked about it," he said.

But this band of brothers has worked tirelessly over the years to educate young people about the Tuskegee Airmen as a group. They have served as museum docents, spoken to numerous schools and colleges and participated in aviation programs such as the ACE Academy, which is aimed at underrepresented young people in and around Detroit.

Capturing the spirit

Though "Red Tails" crunches several years of adventures into a couple of hours, it gets the spirit of the Tuskegee Airmen right, said Dr. Brian Smith, director of the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum.

"I think what it shows is a superhero, and that's what America needs to understand about these men, that they actually did superhuman things during the war," he said. "Tie that together with the racism they had to suffer. They were out there fighting for people who didn't even like them, much less love them."

The pilots are sticklers for detail when it comes to depictions of themselves.

Alexander Jefferson, 90, of Southfield was at Ramitelli and flew 18 long-range combat missions before being shot down by the Germans and sent to POW camps. He said the commanding officer of the 332nd never would have allowed the dramatic conversations that take place over the radio between cockpits in "Red Tails."

"He would have killed us," he joked, explaining how radio communication was kept calm and brief.

Jefferson went on to become a teacher and vice principal in the Detroit public school system. Seven years ago, his book about his war experiences, "Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free," was published.

He knows the importance of putting history down in words -- and into popular culture with movies such as "Red Tails," which can help reach new audiences now and years after.

"Thank God for this movie," Jefferson said.

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