Red Tails, From The Sky To The Screen – Story of The Tuskegee Airmen

By Naima Abdi

 Back in 1941, the first black pilots in the military formed and through their toils in combat and struggle with discrimination, came the legacy of The Tuskegee Airmen. Now in 2012, film will once again pay homage to the story of our nations first African American’s to take flight during WWII.

 Starring Terrance Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr., Red Tails is a story about American heroes in the 332nd fighter group who served for our county and stood brave in the face of bigotry. Backed by Lucas Films, epic filmmaker George Lucas waited twenty-three years to complete this project. Lucas learned about the story in 1988 and spent two decades getting to know Tuskegee Airmen veterans and listening to their experiences while he developed a story in accord with their real life accounts.   

 In the era of Jim Crow, the US Military had the legal right to reject qualified African American’s seeking to enlist and train to become pilots based solely on their race. Over the course of twenty years, civil rights organizations rallied to amend this systemic practice and succeeded in 1939 when Congress approved a law that designated funds to train black pilots. Soon after, African Americans were granted access to civilian flight schools for training and two years later, the aerial unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen was created.

 From 1941-1946 around 1,000 African American pilots were trained at the historically black Tuskegee Institute and 450 fought in combat overseas during the war. Once accepted, the men in this unit realized getting into the military was a relatively small feat compared to coping with regular mistreatment and lack of support they received from white officials with racially intolerant views. Blacks in the unit were segregated from whites in every aspect of military life imaginable, given low-end missions, outdated planes and equipment. But the men from this unit managed to overcome these stark circumstances and proved to be nothing short of world-class pilots.

 For Lucas, grasping historical accuracy wasn’t the only set back along the way. Much of the holdup was due to the fact that Red Tails is a black movie with an all black cast and lack of major white roles. When pitching the film throughout Hollywood, Lucas and the project were turned down because studios didn’t know how to market the movie, so instead he financed the film’s $58 million dollar budget himself. “If I’m going to live or die by my movie, I want to be able to say, ‘Yeah, that was a terrible movie, I made a mistake, sorry.’ I don’t want to have to say I made a great movie but you guys destroyed it,” said Lucas in an interview with USA Today.

 At the same time, Lucas fears that if Red Tails doesn’t deliver a potent and inspiring story then the backlash is on the black film community. Anthony Hemingway (The Wire, The Manchurian Candidate) directs the film and the screenplay is credited to John Ridley (Undercover Brother) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks). Should the movie do poorly, there’s a great chance black filmmakers and writers will continue to be subjected to low budgets and little studio support.

 But if success is the result, Red Tails has the potential to both to inform modern audiences with history and stimulate appetites for intense action sequences and top-notch special effects. Yet the film’s toughest challenge by far, will be to change Hollywood’s perception of black filmmaking. “I can’t predict what Red Tails will do at the box office, but I hope it does well enough for more films like this to be made,” expressed Aaron McGruder in an interview with The Daily Beast.

 Red Tails hits theatres on January 20, 2012.


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