Twenty three years. That’s how long it took George Lucas to amass the money, the men and the might to produce a top-flight war movie about a cadre of America’s greatest heroes: the Tuskegee Airmen.
Granted, the story of the baby-faced World War II Black fighter pilots isn’t new, but it isn’t told nearly enough. And until now, it certainly hasn’t been given a budget of $93 million—a budget spent on a Black director, a leading cast of 13 Black men, a Black screenwriter, a Black fi lm scorer, a Black producer and the real-life stories told by the last of the Tuskegee Airmen, who consulted on the script and faithfully waited more than two decades to see their history-making dogfights showcased on the big screen.
In short, this movie is a certifiable “big deal.” “It’s amazing,” says director Anthony Hemingway, whom most of us know best from his work on The Wire, Oz and CSI: New York. Red Tails is Hemingway’s feature-fi lm debut. “Let me tell you: It can’t get bigger. It really can’t.”
He’s not exaggerating. In Hollywood’s current climate, it’s not only difficult for Black folks to get consistently great morally uncompromising work, but it’s also rare to be hand selected to direct a movie with this kind of juice. It’s rarer still for the executive producer, Lucas, to finance the entire thing out of his own deep pockets.
Given the reins, Hemingway did what he does best: create a cast of actors who embody the real-life characters without overtaking the story with their own celebrity. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard play the older offi cers, while relative newcomers Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Michael B. Jordan, Leslie Odom Jr., Marcus, T. Paulk, Kevin Phillips and Elijah Kelley round out the pilots. Ne-Yo, Andre Royo and Clifford Smith (aka the rapper Method Man) are added in for good measure and comic relief.
And then there is the release of Double Victory, the Lucas-produced Tuskegee Airmen documentary, voiced by Gooding; the nationwide push to get schoolchildren to view the movie en masse on opening week-end; the executive blessings of Oprah and Tyler Perry; the sanctioning by the Rev. T.D. Jakes; and the Lucas-financed distribution that brings this flick to every major city in America because no film distributor with the means to do so wanted to touch the tale of the Black fighter pilots who helped destroy Adolf Hitler’s regime while also fighting the institutional racism promoted by the U.S. Armed Forces.
But that’s just the tip of the Red iceberg. “Take it a step further,” says Gooding, relaxing in his deluxe trailer while waiting for the stylist to finish pinning and prepping him for the EBONY cover shoot. “After President Barack Obama was elected, I was in Europe. Some European guy said to me, ‘I am shocked to see that the Black man can become president of such a racist country.’ People wanted to know how the hell it happened. But if you knew our history, if you knew the accomplishments— especially in the military—the heroism and the leadership that we have in the Black community, you’d know that Obama was just an eventuality.
“And the fact that the world doesn’t know; that the foreign community doesn’t know—especially the filmgoing community— it’s a part of the system that’s broken,” Gooding continues. “I think it’s time to change.”
Yet, history has taught us that affecting change is a huge gamble, especially in Hollywood. The inevitable questions arise: Will people go to see a positive movie featuring strong, attractive, familyoriented Black men with swagger, class and good values? Can this movie make money without Denzel or Will in the lead? Can Lucas pull off a film about the Black experience? Did Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder write it accurately? Can Hemingway direct it? For the Band of Brothers/ Top Gun buffs, will those dogfights be authentic?
As the cast members assembled for our two-day cover shoot, which subsequently kicked off a two-month whirling dervish of marketing events, all weighed in on these questions and on the import of their roles.
“I never heard a Tuskegee Airman say, ‘Man, I’m going to try to get my paper up,’”explains Parker, a married man, a father of three and a historian who unpretentiously drops Carter G. Woodson and Malcolm X quotes into his conversation. Audiences know him from The Great Debaters, Parenthoo and The Secret Life of Bees and will see him again soon in a Spike Lee joint. “They were about a movement. Most of these guys got perfect scores on their flight exams. It’sunheard of. In the same way, this movie is unprecedented, in the sense of having a group of Black men who are empowered, make decisions themselves and are the determining factor in the outcome of the film.”
As for whether Lucas can adequately deliver a Black film, the British-born Oyelowo, who plays the controversial, sexy bad boy of the group, Lightning, says this: “I truly believe George Lucas is probably the only person on planet Earth who could put this kind of money into a film and decide to cast largely no-name, as it were, young African- Americans. And having been afforded the opportunity to do that, it is now for us to continue to fight for and to create opportunities [in which] we can play Black characters who are at the forefront of stories, as opposed to on the periphery.”