“Red Tails,” George Lucas’ major motion picture tribute to the Tuskegee Airman, was released just a few days after Martin Luther King, Jr. ’s birthday and became the “must see movie” in Black communities nationwide.
For opening weekend, the action/fighter pilot film was the destination of bus trips packed with church groups and youth organizations, fraternities and sororities, parents with teens, Facebook friends and even college alumni groups. Howard University, my alma mater, had alumni meet-ups for “Red Tails” at Harlem’s Magic Johnson Theater and a New Jersey cinema. Black audiences were drawn by the urge to celebrate and promote the historic accomplishments of these war heroes. The result was an approximate $20 million box office and a number two slot for the epic World War II film.
Lucas, the producer of action, special effects milestones “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” had a 23-year struggle with the major studios to get Tuskegee Airmen story produced. The studios didn’t believe that a big budget Black action film would make money in the U.S. and overseas. So, he personally funded “Red Tails” to the tune of $100 million.
“Red Tails” not only focuses on Black characters, it has a Black executive producer Charles Floyd Johnson (first Black executive producer of a network drama series with the “Rockford Files”), writers (Aaron McGruder (“Boondocks”) and John Ridley (“Three Kings”) and director Anthony Hemingway (“Heroes” and “The Wire”).
“It’s my second go around as a Tuskegee Airmen, I was in the HBO film,” said Cuba Gooding Jr. during an interview in New York. “Every day on the set we had real Tuskegee Airmen. We’d sit around and ask them stories. I would always find out an interesting fact on their accomplishments. Everyday has been eye opening.”
One of the advisors was acclaimed Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown, former president of Bronx Community College. “We’re been trying to do this (movie) for 65 years. We’re really gratified that at last it has happened,” said Dr. Brown. “People will now know about us, who didn’t know before. There is a cadre of people that knew how good we were and what we had done. In fact, our military record helped to bring about the end of segregation. When President Harry Truman signed Executive order that was the first official end of segregation in the military.”
The film boasts an Oscar winner, Gooding Jr. for “Jerry Maguire” and an Oscar nominee Terrence Howard for “Hustle & Flow.” These movie vets acted as mentors on and off screen for an impressive younger drama ensemble: Nate Parker (“The Great Debaters”), David Oyelowo (“The Help” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), Elijah Kelley (“Hairspray”), Tristan Wilds (“The Wire”) and Ne-Yo (“Stomp the Yard”).
“We are proud of these young actors. They treated us like the colonel and the general,” laughed Howard. “When you hear about the Red Tails, the Tuskegee Airmen, they were a select legendary group of people. We meet them when they were human, flesh and blood, before they became legendary.”
The film also garnered the interest of two U.S. presidents. The “Red Tails” cast attended a special Houston screening with President George H.W. Bush, a World War II Air Force veteran, and Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first African American woman ever to become a U.S. astronaut. In addition, the cast, George Lucas and many original Tuskegee Airmen were guests of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for a private screening at the White House.
“I’ve done 60 films and never before have I screened a film with a president,” said Howard.